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And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.
If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.
Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.
Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.
All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.
Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.
This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.
The people I talked to were mostly barflies, day-time juicers eager to suck up to authority or gab with someone other than the usual boon acquaintances they found in gin mills.Pressing for facts, I got sincere fantasy – virtually every person had Betty Short giving them a long spiel taken from the papers and radio when she was really down in Dago with Red Manley or somewhere getting tortured to death. The longer I listened the more they talked about themselves, interweaving their sad tales with the story of the Black Dahlia, who they actually believed to be a glamorous siren headed for Hollywood stardom. It was as if they would have traded their own lives for a juicy front-page death.
I have never been happier to finish something and walk away. Consider this review an exculpation of self-disgust for not throwing this book out of a train window when I had the chance. Problem is it’s a library book. And librarians frown on such conduct…
Ellroy introduces us to two former boxers, Lee Blanchardt and Bucky Bleichert, both rising through the ranks of LA’s police force after the Second World War. Eager to win the public relations war, a corrupt wannabe DA arranges a boxing match pitting the officers against each other. The fight bonds the two men in a firm friendship and wins them a ticket out of uniform duty to work as plain clothes police in Warrants. Deputy District Attorney Ellis Loew has two star officers the papers love and his ascendancy is assured.
On 15 January 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in Leimart Park near 39th Street and Norton Avenue, Los Angeles. This is not fiction. The newsies gave her the nickname, the Black Dahlia, riffing on a popular movie at the time starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (the actress who inspired the character of Lynn Bracken in Ellroy’s LA Confidential). From here on in, the author continues to blur the lines between fact and fiction by having Blanchardt and Bleichert investigate Elizabeth Short’s murder.
Both men become obsessed with the gruesome details of the young woman’s death, trying to fill in the details of her missing week of drunken flings with offshore navy servicemen and bent cops that preceded it. An acquaintance of the victim is found with a can of film that reveals Short involved in a stag picture. Her own father gleefully sells childhood photos of her to the press to make a quick buck. Loew’s efforts to pin the murder on a convenient stooge repeatedly fail and eventually he is unable to prevent the media from turning his carefully managed spin of a young innocent girl murdered in her prime, into a grotty tragedy, the inevitable fate for a down-at-luck call girl in Hollywood, who cruised lesbian bars for free drinks and lied to everyone she met.
As the story progresses Blanchardt and Bleichert seem less and less like partners on a murder case and more like split personalities sharing the same obsession. The papers call them Fire and Ice, in remembrance of their boxing days, and the two see-saw in their respective morbid fascination with the Black Dahlia. Bleichert is our narrator and initially he only wants to get back to his career in Warrants. He is disgusted by the grandstanding of the Assistant DA and hasn’t the stomach for homicide cases. We take his word that his partner Lee is the one obsessed with the case. Then he meets a doppelgänger for Elizabeth Short, an heiress who frequents lesbian bars. Slowly the narration takes on Blanchardt’s obsessiveness, just as he mysteriously drops out of the book.
This is an ugly story, about people committing ugly acts. It purports to realism by featuring actual persons involved in the case – the newsman Bevo Means and the primary suspect for a time ‘Red’ Manley – but this is a world painted black, with not a glimmer of hope, nor a spark of humour. It is a turgid dirge that apes moralism but offers no narrative conclusion for any of its events. Had I spent today’s train journey just staring out the window at the houses and towns as they passed in a blur, it would have been time better spent than on this sledgehammer subtle tale of corruption, misery and a lost dead girl from 1947.