We discuss this wonderful neo-noir tale from one of the “Queens of Noir.”
Plus, we talk films, review a few books, and have an interesting talk about antiheroes thanks to a listener question.
Point Blank Review of Megan Abbott’s Queenpin
Queenpin is Megan Abbott’s third novel. It was published by Simon & Schuster in 2007. It won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original, the 2008 Barry Award for Best Paperback Novel, and was nominated for the Anthony award. The story, set in the 1940s (I think), and is a classic hardboiled tale. It is clear that Abbott is well-read in the classics — having written The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir, which I assume was her PhD Dissertation — before publishing her own hardboiled fiction.
Queenpin is the story of a young woman (an unnamed tech school student ) who lives at home with dad and does the bookkeeping for a small nightclub / gambling parlor in what appears to be Las Vegas, though we don’t really get a sense of the setting other than that it’s a city where with a lot of legal gambling.
This young woman, our protagonist, gets asked to fudge the books a bit for her employers, and she does, doing it well enough to catch the eye of local mob matriarch Gloria Denton, who is a major player in the local syndicate scene. Gloria works in stolen goods, collects a lot of payments, and though she is not as big as she once was, is the platonic ideal of the hard tough mob boss. Soon enough our nameless narrator is taken under Gloria’s wing. Gloria sees her as someone who could with training could be molded in Gloria’s likeness to serve, perhaps, as her second in command.
In essence this is a story of a protege under the wing of a luminary being taught the ropes of the business, learning, in some cases, the hard way how to succeed. She succeeds early on, developing that hard shell (like magic shell) necessary to survive in a tough business, but then she meets a guy, and this guy is ultimately her undoing.
The guys name is Vic. He’s a small time gambler, consistently in debt, but from the moment they meet, it’s pure lust. Our narrator can’t seem to get enough of him. This puts her in a bind. Men and the Gloria Denton Training Academy do not mix. Our narrator is stuck as the ever-observant Gloria and the new man — who may or may or not be on the up-and-up pleads to her for help.
The main dramatic question in this novel is: Will our narrator be able to have her cake and eat it too? Will she be able to balance Gloria and Vic in her life. Of course, at the end, we find the answer. Early on, Abbott plants the questions pretty clearly. On page 49, protagonist says, “quote I had it under control….I felt like it was all over me…If I would have listened.”
When they scheme to get Vic the $40,000 he needs to pay off a local boss by staging a robbery where our narrator is intentionally beaten to make it believable, or narrator hopes that she knows enough, is clever enough to play both sides, to rig the system and win, but it doesn’t work out this way.
Gloria finds out. She finds out about Vic and she is enraged that her prize, her protege, has been hurt. She doesn’t know that our narrator was in on the take, or does she? Regardless, Vic is in her crosshairs and he pays the ultimate price. At this point our narrator has to decide how far loyalty extends and whether or not there is a point at which she breaks.
This is a very good book. Abbott has the language down. The plot isn’t revolutionary, but the characters are deeply compelling. I love the tension between Gloria and our narrator. I like the love and adoration between them. It is refreshing that the main characters are tough women, but that their toughness doesn’t feel gendered or forced.
One small issue is that I wish there was more of the place. There is little sense of the greater setting. It’s really hard to tell if we are in Vegas. If I didn’t learning that gambling hadn’t been legalized till 1978, this city could easily have been Atlantic City. There is no mention of the desert, mountains, the strip, the ocean, only vague signifiers like east and west. In that way, this novel has a claustrophobic quality. Outside of “rough gambling town,” it’s clear that setting wasn’t a major concern to Abbott, and this isn’t a big issue, only a minor quibble.
Overall I give this a 4.5 / 5.
5 Round Burst:
Paradise Travel by Jorge Franco – Translated by Katherine Silver. Originally published in Spanish in 2001, the translation was put out in the US by Picador in 2007. Jorge Franco is a Colombian author, and this his second novel translated to English in the US.
This is not quite a crime novel, but it has elements of noir — the main character is down on his luck, grinding away in an urban atmosphere of grime and despair, a stranger in a strange land where the police are out to get him. This story revolves around two Colombians — Marlon and Reina — and their plight to migrate from Medellin to New York City. Reina is a femme fatale character, withholding her love to get Marlon to do her bidding. Marlon is love-sick and, despite trepidation, willing to go along with Reina’s schemes.
They try the legal route first, but when their visa requests are rejected, their contact / travel agent arranges illegal passage through Mexico. But as soon as they get to NYC, Marlon goes out for a smoke, gets chased by a cop, and gets lost. Now both characters are alone in the big city, with no money and no connections.
I enjoyed this book. The time structure is fragmented. The stories of their scheme hatching in Colombia, their migration across the Mexican border, and Marlon’s search for Reina in New York are intertwined. The fragmented structure didn’t work for me at first, but at about the quarter way point I fell into a nice groove.
Ultimately, the fragmented structure is a strength; without it the chronology would lack tension. I enjoyed Marlon’s frightening descent into isolation, anxiety, and madness in the labyrinthine streets of New York, and though Marlon is a bit clueless, and Reina’s naked self-interest and questionable motives is a surprise to approximately no one, I thought the story was successfully rendered. Not quite a crime story, but there is enough noir atmosphere for me to justify recommending this to those of you who want to read a Colombian take on the undocumented immigrant experience in the US — strangers in a strange land stories, urban stories of alienation — in the era just before 9/11.
This for me is a hit.
Among the Thugs by Bill Buford – My second book this time around is Among the Thugs by Bill Buford Again, not a crime novel. This is nonfiction, a new journalistic day-in-the-life of English soccer fans i.e. Hooligans in the 1980s and early 1990s. I picked this up because of the title and because of the cover, which features a black and white photograph of a young skinhead with a cigarette dangling from his lips. It is hard to tell what’s going on behind his eyes, if anything; he looks immune to pain. It’s an evocative image.
It fits with the feel of book, which tells the story of the lost souls of an Empire in twilight, the working class have-nots in Thatcher’s England, their sense of alienation and anomie and their salvation in soccer, or futbol, not so much in the games themselves but in the extracurricular violence that occurs before during and after games between rival gangs of fanatics. It is a story of camaraderie, ganglike brotherhood, but also fanatic nationalism. Defending their team like they would defend their homeland — mother England — against arbitrary or imagined enemies.
This is a violent story. Some pretty horrific incidents are discussed, including the ease with which large groups of often very drunk men were willing to engage in incredible and oftentimes xenophobic violence against opponents or bystanders both home and abroad. Buford employs a new journalism style ala Hunter S Thompson to get in amongst this group
and document them. It wasn’t easy for him at first. He struggles and then succeeds to earn trust, and soon he struggles with the idea that he is one of them, and what does they say
Harrowing and fascinating, this is an eye-opening book that offers interesting sociological insight into the criminal mind. What motivates one to act on violent impulses? For the hooligans of 1980s England, it doesn’t take much at all.
“She Rides Shotgun” by Jordan Harper
“Lamentation” by Joe Clifford
“Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront” by Nathan Ward
“XXX Shamus” by Red Hammond
Queenpin / Megan Abbott