MEGAN ABBOTT HAS MADE a name for herself as a modern-day “Queen of Noir” with her stylized, shadowy tales of twenties starlets and fifties housewives. She’s known for bringing femininity into a generally masculine genre, replacing all those monosyllabic detective types with hardboiled vixens and casting them in complicated, intoxicating, confusing relationships. In this newest novel, her heroines are a brilliant if unlikely pick for the genre; a pack of gum-snapping, finger-popping, boy-destroying teenage girls with pom-poms in hand. If varsity cheerleaders don’t already give you the chills, they will by the final pages of Dare Me.
Colette French is the new varsity cheerleading coach at Sutton Grove High, set in modern-day Anywhere, America. “Coach” is tough-as-nails and stunningly beautiful, and she’s there to whip this squad into shape. In so doing, she dethrones Squad Captain Beth Cassidy, queen of the mean girls and lifelong best friend to Addy Hanlon, our narrator. Addy has spent a lifetime in Beth’s shadow, playing the role of “her forever-lieutenant, since age nine, pee-wee cheer,” and holding the dubious honor of being the only person who understands Beth’s need to be cruel and her increasingly wild, erratic behavior. Beth is wonderfully dangerous; power-hungry, seemingly capable of anything, the kind of girl you don’t want to make an enemy of. But making an enemy of Beth is, of course, Coach’s first move. Perhaps even worse than taking away her title, Coach has the audacity to notice Addy, Beth’s permanent second-in-command. Coach gives Addy the attention she’s always been denied, and Addy eats it up (really, you can’t blame her). Coach fans these flames by first inviting Addy into her home, then her life — finally she lets her in on a very dark secret…a few of them, actually. We’re watching this unfold through Addy’s eyes, and with her we also keep a close eye on Beth, whose combined status as best friend and local despotic sociopath make her a particularly complicated figure for Addy to manage. And manage her, Addy must. Beth is excluded, alienated, and growing increasingly angry. She’s losing control, not only of Addy, but of the squad as a whole, which improves exponentially under new command. Coach drives them to new heights (literally, they become able to take on ambitious new “stunts,” throwing each other high into the air).
This is a perfectly rendered love triangle: two too-close-for-comfort female relationships (something Abbott seems to specialize in), in direct conflict. Then, all of a sudden, there is a body and a whole slew of hazy details. Coach’s imperfections become monstrosities. Addy, caught off guard, fumbles with the pieces of a moving puzzle. And all the while Beth, shark-like, circles the scene.
One of the most thrilling aspects of Abbott’s storytelling is her magician-like sleight of hand; we sense that something terrible is about to happen, but our focus is somehow distracted, just off to the side, so that the turn we thought we saw coming is not at all what we thought it would be. Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, we’re delivered another blow. This is classic noir, and Abbott delivers each beat so cleanly and neatly one has to wonder if plot comes to her like breathing.
“Something happened, Addy. It’s a bad ...