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by Megan Abbott
Simon & Schuster, July 2009
240 pages
ISBN: 1416599096

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Minister's daughter, young and innocent Marion Seeley has gone and married herself a rotter, a drug addict who drags her down with him as he slowly loses control over his desires. Attempting one last chance to "make things right", her doctor husband accepts a job in Mexico and parks his genteel ("too good for me!") and compliant little wifey in a crummy-but-respectable lodging house in Phoenix where she will also work, and save, so that when he returns in a year or two he will (hopefully) be clean and sober, and they each will have saved some money to start their lives anew. At the clinic where she becomes a transcriptionist, lonely Marion meets up with nurse Louise, wild and wonderful, exotic and seductive, and the die is cast. Lovely Louise and her peculiar roommate Ginny are fun-lovers deluxe, whose wild parties at their little house are legend. How bad the company truly is, naive little Marion initially hasn't a clue, but slowly becomes aware of the many colorful sorts of happenings in that infamous little house.

Pretty nearly every female in this story comes to a bad end, and knowing that the novel is based upon fact gives a nice edge to things. Megan Abbot plunks the reader down right in 1930 Phoenix with the lost and despairing Marion, and allows you to empathize with the poor thing as her life spirals out of control. The setting is very good, the characters are wonderfully drawn, especially Marion, and while the plot may seem easily predictable, Abbott's treatment of this basic noir theme (good girl goes bad) is well done, if a bit slowly paced. There is quite the flavor of actual books of the period in the writing, which pleased me very much - far too many historicals set in the 1920s and 1930s never achieve this quality, a peculiar combination of up-front innocence mixed with knowledge of darker things kept under the surface, but Abbott is a smooth and enticing writer.

The use of a true life cause celèbre as the basis for the novel is both its strength and a weakness. Abbott carefully states that while she based the novel's concept upon the major points in the actual case, she did change many things to suit her alternate vision of the story. The story she eventually wrote worked extremely well, but was a bit too soap-opera-ish at the end for my taste; this was the only real quibble I had with this extremely well-written and enjoyable noirish tale. It's not - as the real story was - true noir; the real-life murderess' fate was ultimately far darker and tougher than it is in BURY ME DEEP, although I did believe in Marion, and rooted for her at the end of the story. So while I found Abbott's ending to be a fitting one thematically, I was disappointed a bit by it as well - it was too hopeful and nearly redemptive for true noir, and sadly weakened what came before, at least IMO.

Yet the author's choices actually made this a stronger story in another sense, as her evolution of Marion into a capable, strong-minded survivor provided better theater, with a clearer emotional thread throughout the novel than messy life often shows us, and the ending was rather more enjoyable because of it. But Abbott's shading also twisted the plot into something a bit less noir, less gritty and more romantic than real life, in a way that many of the novels of the 1920s and 1930s might have been written (well, except by the Black Mask guys, i.e., Hammett et al). Though Abbott does make use of far more dark and dirty bits than most novelists of the period might have done, she's not, to my taste, in Hammett's league, as her emotional shading is far too delicate and her sensibilities a bit too gentle to allow her to join that boys' club.

BURY ME DEEP was a wonderful read and I highly recommend it, but don't expect true noir in this sad little cautionary tale of young women who 'go bad'. For that you'd need to read about the true crime upon which it was based; Abbott kindly gives you a good deal of information about it in her Author's Note at the end, and unfortunately real life trumped the novel, at least for me - it had a bittersweet quality that was perfectly flavored - the taste of true noir.

BURY ME DEEP has been nominated for an Edgar Award and a Hammett Award.

Reviewed by Abbey Hamilton, February 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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