Synopsis (from Goodreads):
FEMME FATALES. OBSESSIVE LOVE. DOUBLE CROSSES.How does a respectable young woman fall into Los Angeles’ hard-boiled underworld? Easy – by befriending her sister-in-law.
This twisted 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. Will she turn into her sister-in-law?
Oh it was a twisted tale, delightfully dark, intelligent and clever. What’s more, it was Megan Abbott’s debut novel. I was impressed – it sure doesn’t read like a first novel. The author managed to create a great although murky world inhabited by three-dimensional, shadowed characters. Mostly females to boot. What not to like? Ok, the details are coming.
The setting worked for me like wonder. The 1950s in America seems to be an idealized era, full of stability, prosperity and promise that even more impressive future is lurking right around the corner; some would say it was a nicer, simpler time. There were no major issues concerning the place of women and men, their sexuality and mutual relationships. Drugs? Homosexuals? Prostitution? Sexual deviations? Feminism? It was all swept under the carpet and the carpet always seemed to be big enough and thick enough to cover it all, at least for the time being.
Die a Little is the tale of a sister trying to protect the only family she has in a world that, surprise, surprise, stopped being safe and familiar. Lora, an independent professional but also a fairly inexperienced young woman, in the beginning is rather suspicious and a little bit jealous of her new sister by marriage, Alice. Still she can’t help being fascinated by her. As Bill pushes the two “new sisters” to get to know and befriend each other Lora finds herself drawn to Alice and pulled into her “other life”, full of seedy bars, drugs, guns, loose women, and tough, ruthless guys. A life a bit like a gangster movie but far more dangerous because very real and without any promise of a happy ending for the protagonists. In fact you are soon pretty sure it cannot end well, nuh-huh. It was a fascinating process – discovering more and more about Alice who, it seemed, wanted to forget about her former lifestyle pretty damn quick. And she couldn’t.
Things started sliding downhill once Alice’s seedy friend, Lois, showed up – a girl definitely worse for use, with a fully-fledged drug addiction which forced her to sell herself on a regular basis. Then Lora hooked up with a handsome thug called Standish and found the mysterious, expensive address book; after that her life got truly grim but she saw it coming and also almost welcomed it. The ending surprised me but I guess it shouldn’t have, given that this is a noir book; one thing is sure, Megan Abbott truly knows how to create a dark mood and draw the suspense.
If I had to complain about something, it would be that Lora’s brother Bill wasn’t developed almost at all as a character, but since Lora’s investigation of Alice and the dynamics between these two was the focus of the story, it didn’t matter all that much at first. Still it created a kind of inequality which grated a bit after a while.
Finally let me emphasize the fact that the novel was very well-researched when it comes to the mid-twentieth-century material culture. My favorite parts were the catalogues of nineteen-fifties consumer products and foods like this one, quoted below:
On Bill’s birthday, she spent hours making cream-puff swans shaped from what she carefully pronounced as ‘pâte à chou.’ For a block party, almond icebox cake and cornflake macaroons. Chow mein-noodle haystacks and fried spaghetti cookies for a neighborhood association bake sale. For a dinner party, white chocolate grasshopper pie still foaming with melted marshmallows and doused with Hiram Walker. More dinner parties with still racier items, ambrosia brimming with Grand Marnier, a fruit-cocktail gelatin ring nearly a foot high and glistening. As the parties grew more elaborate, more frenetic, bourbon balls studded with pecans and Nesselrode pie with sweet Marsala and chestnuts. Strawberries Biltmore covered with vanilla custard sauce. Baked Alaska drizzled through with white rum. Peach Melba suffused with framboise.
My inner closet historian and my inner foodie were nodding and smiling all the time.
If you like noir books and flawed female characters who can’t count on any redemption don’t look further – Megan Abbott is your girl. I cannot wait to read her other novels.