By Kurt Anthony Krug
Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott’s crime novels are usually pulp noir period pieces occurring in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s – but with a female twist.
“It’s really hard to write in the hard-boiled vein without turning into cliché or kitsch because the tropes are so familiar: the bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, etc. I think it’s harder to write a straight hard-boiled P.I. novel, but there are not many female characters in these books, especially regular women who are not strippers or hookers,” said Abbott with a laugh. “It opened up this whole new terrain for me.
“It felt like I could go into this well-trod area with a fresh perspective. So that did make it much easier. I try to be true to the time-period for the ones set in the past – I don’t have a female P.I. and at the time, there probably wouldn’t have been one. My protagonists tend to be more criminal than detectives anyway.” However, her last two books – 2011’s “The End of Everything” and the recently released “Dare Me,” which received advanced praise from The Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly – take place in Grosse Pointe, where the author grew up and attended Grosse Pointe North High School. However, Grosse Pointe is never mentioned by name.
“I don’t name it,” said Abbott, a 1993 graduate of the University of Michigan. “It’s modern-times in Michigan, but I don’t come out and say if it takes place in Michigan or a place like Michigan. To me, it’s very Midwestern. It has to be for me because it was my adolescent experience and I drew upon that a lot,” she said.
Where all the past novels are set in big cities, Abbott said the last two are set in the suburbs.
“In my head, it’s a suburb like Grosse Pointe, it’s a suburb I grew up in,” she said. “In my last book, ‘The End of Everything,’ I don’t name it but all these markers – like Lake St. Clair – are there. Anyone who grew up in Grosse Pointe would recognize them. In this one, it’s very similar. It’s very suburban: quiet on the outside and tumultuous on the inside, which was always how Grosse Pointe was to me.”
“Dare Me,” which is also written in a pulp noir style like Abbott’s other books, looks at the dark side of cheerleading.
Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are the queen bees of the varsity cheerleading squad whom their peers aspire to be and fear at the same time.
However, the arrival of the enigmatic Coach French disrupts the social hierarchy, turning Addy and Beth against each other, the stakes growing higher, as well as deadlier.
“What I found in my research — which means at first just watching girls cheering — it’s become this risk-taking, almost death-defying sport. The stunts these girls do truly put their bodies at risk, but they love it. It has fascinated me, their ferocity out there. They’re almost like Marines, they take it so seriously. Yet nobody really talks about it. I think the idea of the cheerleader is still this perky, pompon-waving girl, so that really intrigued me and the novel’s a crime novel that’s set in the world and the dark places these girls end up,” explained Abbott.
The author found her research into “Dare Me” to be “upsetting and compelling” in how cheerleaders aren’t upset or put off by the dangers of the sport.
“I think, in part, it’s because they’re teen-agers and have illusions of immortality. I do think for some of them, they’re willing to take that risk. It’s rather alarming. It is the most dangerous sport for girls right now. Maybe only next to football, it’s the only sport with the most dangers to spine, so it’s not minor injuries either,” she said. “I spoke with a former cheerleader, and she had shown me pictures of what a fall had done to her knee and her back. She was telling me about how awful the injuries were, but she’s going to try out for her college’s cheerleading squad. It did not sway her at all. That just continued to captivate me – what is it about this pushing yourself to the edge? Why did they do it?”
Asked if she was a cheerleader during her Grosse Pointe North days, Abbott laughed and said no.
“I was really the opposite. I was the editor of the school paper,” she recalled. “Cheerleading was a bit different back then. This is the 1980s — there was much more dancing and hip-swinging. It’s not something it is today. It wouldn’t have been something I’ve been involved in, which is why I was so surprised that I ended up finding it so fascinating.”
Abbott is encouraged and honored by the praise the book has received from national publications, including the aforementioned EW (which gave it an A-minus), as well as People Magazine, O Magazine, Booklist, and The Times of London — especially since she had concerns about the novel’s dark tones.
“I was a little worried about it because it’s rather a dark book and people might view it as too dark for them: they don’t want to see girls doing these things and falling into this world,” she said . “People really identify with it. All women remember being at that age… and you end taking risks that you shouldn’t — there’s a universal aspect to that. And I think that some of the male readers have been interested in because it’s a world that they haven’t been given access to; it’s a peek behind the curtain.”
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