The Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott feels at home writing about subjects most of us wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Her newest novel, Give Me Your Hand, concerns a young scientist researching premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe, poorly understood form of PMS. Periods aren’t the only taboo Abbott’s intent on examining. Her previous novels engage parent-child relationships, mass hysteria, and the desires of young people with a Hitchcockian fluency and sense of urgency.
Abbott is the author of nine novels and The Street Was Mine, a nonfiction study of gender and race in twentieth-century hard-boiled fiction which grew out of her graduate studies at New York University. In time, Abbott’s enthusiasm for detective novels led to a somewhat accidental career writing novels that inhabit the world of classic noir while tangling with contemporary issues. Her books are described as crime fiction, psychological thrillers, and domestic noirs, labels which disguise the fact Abbott’s stories are first and foremost works of supremely consumable art. There is an art in sustained momentum, after all, an artfulness in telling a story so well that readers simply “can’t put it down.” Abbott is gracious but skeptical of the labels applied to her work, with a keen sense of the impulses that drive us, often subconsciously, to use certain words or categories.
Abbott traveled from her home in Queens to meet with me over two days in February in an office off of Times Square, now nearly unrecognizable as the grimy seventies setting of The Deuce, the David Simon HBO series about New York City police corruption, organized crime, and the dawn of the pornography industry, for which Abbott is a writer. Abbott’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, psychology, and pop culture led our discussion to such fascinating and unlikely places as noir’s popularity in times of tumult, the gothic nature of the suburbs, and why The Real Housewives reality-TV series reminds her of an Edith Wharton novel.
SR: Your first book, The Street Was Mine, is a critical study of the white male hero figure in hard-boiled fiction. It grew out of your PhD dissertation at NYU, correct?
Abbott: Yes. At that time, the late nineties, there was very little academic study of hard-boiled fiction being done—it was considered pulp, not to be taken seriously. But, for me, these books were—and are—so rich. I became very interested in the trope of the “tough guy” as we see it take shape in the genre. The “tough guy” persona derives primarily from writers like Mickey Spillane. His detective hero, Mike Hammer, is hypermacho, wildly violent: he’ll take on the mob, the Russians. He’s almost a Superman. But when you look at most hard-boiled heroes, they’re not so tough. Instead, you find a kind of gender panic. Masculinity in crisis. Take Raymond Chandler’s detective hero Philip Marlowe—in those books, manhood is constantly under threat. He risks violence at the hands of powerful men, emasculation at the hands of the femme fatale. Masculinity doesn’t feel secure, and it doesn’t feel like the solution to anything. Alternately, Marlowe seems to find a fascination with—and fear of—the feminine. If Spillane has control over everything, Marlowe feels control over nothing, not even himself. Race is complicated in these books too. There’s a great fear that whiteness doesn’t mean what it once did—it no longer guarantees privilege.
When these tough guys appeared in Hollywood movies, however, all that ambiguity and hysteria was erased. Instead, you have Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, or as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and he’s so cool and tough and can handle anything or anyone. People tend to remember the movies, but those books present a much more ambiguous and sometimes even subversive view of identity.
During my research, I read nothing but noir for about two years, immersing myself in Chandler, Chester Himes, and James M. Cain. I just fell head over heels for these books, the world they painted, and the interest was more than critical, more than theoretical. They stirred my imagination, and I began writing what became my first novel, Die A Little, as a way to inhabit the world of these books from a different angle—not from an analytical perspective, but an imaginative one. It was very liberating: I felt as if I’d discovered a place where there were no rules, which I think is the feeling you get with first novels.
SR: Before we go any further, how would you define the term “hard-boiled” versus “noir” fiction?
Abbott: Hard-boiled is distinct from noir, though they’re often used interchangeably. The common argument is that hard-boiled novels are an extension of the wild-west and pioneer narratives of the nineteenth century. The wilderness becomes the city, and the hero is usually a somewhat fallen character, a detective or a cop. At the end, everything is a mess, people have died, but the hero has done the right thing or close to it, and order has, to a certain extent, been restored. Law and Order is a great example of the hard-boiled formula in a contemporary setting. Noir is different. In noir, everyone is fallen, and right and wrong are not clearly defined and maybe not even attainable. In that sense, noir speaks to us powerfully right now, when certain structures of authority don’t make sense any longer, and we wonder: Why should we abide by them? Noir thrived in the forties after the Depression and World War II, and in the seventies, with Watergate and Vietnam, for similar reasons.