Megan Abbott finds nothing quite as intriguing as the truth.
In her novel Queenpin, most recently nominated for a 2008 Edgar Award, the award-winning crime writer investigates history as though it were any other mystery.
Her first two novels were set in the Hollywood of the ‘40s and ‘50s and inspired by real-life cases. The idea for Queenpin came after reading a biography of Virginia Hill, a courier for the mob and Bugsy Siegel’s inspiration for the Flamingo Hotel.
“It really interested me,” she said. “The mechanics of how a woman could last in what was totally a male operation.”
Abbott was fascinated by those operations long before she started writing fiction. “The draw for me was a love as a kid of the glamour, the suspense, the unknown.”
She has said, since moving from Hell’s Kitchen to Forest Hills four years ago, that Queens is the crime writer’s ideal home. Last year, the cop-turned-author Robert Knightly asked her to write a story for his anthology of Queens noir.
“I had this wealth of stuff” to write about, she said, which included everything from the Kitty Genovese murder to the stories her friends would tell her about the neighborhood.
Many a friend’s offhand comment has led to twisted tales of dirty deeds. A bowling alley that used to exist on Queens Boulevard, unremarkable in its prime, became a thrilling house of horrors in “Hollywood Lanes,” featured in Knightly’s Queens Noir.
To Abbott’s friends, “in their kid’s-eye-view,” the Forest Hills bowling alley had an aura of adult sophistication. “It really hit me, the way that certain places that adults go seem different when you’re a kid.”
Pop culture also appears in her repertoire, which includes non-fiction about “the history of the tough guy figure in movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s.” She researched the subject as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and was both the Arts and Film editor of her college newspaper, where she was able to explore the noir genre—beginning with old grocery store paperbacks.
“A lot of pulp fiction of that period [‘40s and ‘50s] was not treated as literature because it was written for everybody, for people who never read before, and consumed in large quantities,” she said. “I just thought they were fantastic.”
“They had the same themes as highbrow literature. They just take a slightly different form.”
Her other literary influences include writer James Elroy, of L.A. Confidential fame, and Raymond Chandler, “who started it all in terms of hard-boiled fiction.”
Although historical events are often her inspiration, the subject matter—murder—can be hard to translate into literature.
“It’s very serious [material], but as a writer, it’s kind of a trick. You’re responsible for its fact-ness, so you have to work your story around these irrefutable facts,” she explained. “It’s a test of the writer’s ability. I can’t change the details of the case.” As with any novel, she added. “If it’s working, you shouldn’t be seeing the author pulling the strings.”
That said, she admits to playing around with pulp fiction portrayals of gender.
“In a lot of the classic hard-boiled novels, women tend to only have a few roles they can occupy—femme fatale, stripper, nagging wife”—but women “rarely take central roles.”
Of course, being complex and independent does not exclude these characters from a classic staple of the genre: the scandalous love affair.
“Desire is a really big component [of mystery]. People can’t control their desire—they have to have what they have to have…You know it’s going to lead to something terrible.”
Is that really romance? Her answer: “it is to me.”