Sharp Tongues

February 15, 2012   •   By Cullen Gallagher

[This is part of a larger essay on 2011 crime fiction by Cullen Gallagher.]

MEGAN ABBOTT POSSESSES one of the most lyrical voices in all of noir. In novels like Die a Little, The Song Is You, and Queenpin, her prose captured the magic of old Hollywood crime flicks, the tenderness of a soft focus close-up, the dim haze of a gin joint, and the sharp tongues of classic femmes fatale. With Bury Me Deep, her reworking of the Winnie Ruth Judd "trunk murderess" case, Abbott's marriage of hardboiled and rhapsodic styles reached its pinnacle. Rather than retread past trails, Abbott has made the daring — but wise — choice to leave the past of gun molls, nightclubs, and tinseltown temptations behind.

Abbott's latest novel transports readers to the dark underbelly of 1980s Midwest suburbia, and with a nihilistic title to rival Lawrence Block's Everybody Dies. The End of Everything is told from the perspective of thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood, whose best friend and next-door-neighbor, Evie Verver, suddenly goes missing. Lizzie was the last person to see Evie, and her recollections are the only clues the police have to go on. Coping with the trauma of her friend's disappearance as well as the realization of her own vulnerability is a hard enough struggle, but Lizzie's complex emotions are compounded by the awakening of her own sexuality. As Lizze's envy of the family next door turns into desire, Abbott pulls back the curtains on middle-class morality, exploring the uncomfortable impulses lurking beneath respectable veneers.

Stylistically, The End of Everything is Abbott's most refined and rapturous offering yet. Through Lizzie, Abbott is able to tap into the strange poetry of adolescence, of newfound intuition and overflowing emotion. Without being reductively juvenile, Abbott captures that twilight of mystery and superstition that fades with experience. Lizzie's ruminations on the kidnapping reveal a mixture of dread and desire: "How does this man, a man like this, like any of them, come to walk at night and stand in a girl's backyard, and then, smoking and looking up, suddenly feel himself helpless to her bright magic?" Abbott's portrayal is often disturbingly, even brutally honest, especially when Lizzie empathizes with the kidnapper:

Her dark hair sheeted out, matching her limbs, summerhoneyed.

He saw that and he fell in love. How could anyone see Evie's cartwheels and not fall in love?

Oh, how his heart must have ached with it.

Lizzie's every discovery is larger than life, whether it's a clue about Evie's disappearance, or her own complicated feelings toward Mr. Verver. All that Lizzie discovers about Evie — from the naively romantic to the hurtfully lustful — she recognizes in herself. As the case grows more complicated, the two girls no longer seem transparently sweet and innocent. They are complex, and complicit, young adults, whose desires and impulses aren't easy for anyone to reckon with, not even themselves. Oddly enough, we can see the roots of Lizzie and Evie in Abbott's earlier and older noir protagonists. Schoolteacher Lora King's blooming, then booming, sexual urges, which take control in Die a Little; the unnamed narrator of Queenpin, who runs money for the mob and risks their wrath to satisfy her lust; the trio of nurses in Bury Me Deep, bound by a mutual craving for human touch, which eventually destroys them. Lizzie and Evie might grow up to be any of these women. In this light, The End of Everything isn't so far removed from Abbott's earlier books as one might first suspect. It's pre-noir: a sign of the dark things yet to come.