Review: Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Die a Little by Megan Abbott




How does a respectable young woman fall into Los Angeles’ hard-boiled underworld?

Shadow-dodging through the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood and its seedy flip side, Megan Abbott’s debut, Die a Little, is a gem of the darkest hue. This ingenious twist on a classic noir tale tells the story of Lora King, a schoolteacher, and her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the district attorney’s office. Lora’s comfortable, suburban life is jarringly disrupted when Bill falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant with a murky past.

Made sisters by marriage but not by choice, the bond between Lora and Alice is marred by envy and mistrust. Spurred on by inconsistencies in Alice’s personal history and possibly jealous of Alice’s hold on her brother, Lora finds herself lured into the dark alleys and mean streets of seamy Los Angeles. Assuming the role of amateur detective, she uncovers a shadowy world of drugs, prostitution, and ultimately, murder.

Lora’s fascination with Alice’s “sins” increases in direct proportion to the escalation of her own relationship with Mike Standish, a charmingly amoral press agent who appears to know more about his old friend Alice than he reveals. The deeper Lora digs to uncover Alice’s secrets, the more her own life begins to resemble Alice’s sinister past — and present.

Steeped in atmospheric suspense and voyeuristic appeal, Die a Little shines as a dark star among Hollywood lights.

I need to cut to the chase with this one. Acts One and Two of Megan Abbott’s debut novel Die a Little had me completely enthralled. Enthralled by the three females of importance including the narrator, enthralled by the men who surround them, and enthralled by the world of ’50s Los Angeles in which they dance. It was all set up to be a masterpiece of crime fiction. And then it wasn’t. Act Three is a crushing disappointment.

Megan Abbott loves the English language, and she deploys it with great skill. She also plots with great skill for two acts. But two acts are not enough. The reader sees that it is dark and expects it to get darker still, because this is noir. And then it doesn’t, really. A couple of cheats and deus ex machinas (or whatever the plural is) are flaws, but can be excused if the payoff is there. It isn’t.

Lost opportunities abound. The tragedies aren’t that tragic. The happy endings aren’t really there either, so at the end of it, I wasn’t very involved. Whose success am I supposed to cheer? Whose death am I supposed to mourn? When am I supposed to gasp in astonishment? Why should I care?

Make me care. Die a Little did, for two acts. I then kept waiting for that thing, that reason that we love this stuff, to happen. It didn’t. Instead, the book muddled its way to an ending, and then it ended, and I was annoyed.

Die a Little seems the work of someone in love with the concept of noir who isn’t quite there yet with its execution. Too much in love with prose and tone, not in love enough with plotting. Atmosphere is great, but the story must be king at the end.

Will I read more Megan Abbott? Without question–I’ve read one of her short stories and liked it a lot, and there’s a lot good about Die a Little. I have every reason to believe that Act Three is just a stumble. But, man, what a missed opportunity. Almost there.

(I should add that I absorbed Die a Little through Tantor Media’s audiobook, read by Ellen Archer. The reading was superb.)

Die a Little: A Novel