By the time Megan Abbott first came to Los Angeles, she had already written a book set in the city — her 2005 debut, “Die a Little.”
It might sound odd — Abbott grew up 2,000 miles away in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe — but Hollywood was always something of a spiritual home for the noir-obsessed mystery novelist.
“I felt like I walked into a Raymond Chandler novel,” Abbott recalls of her first visit to the City of Angels. “It was so uncanny to see it. Everything about it is different and heightened and artificial in a creepy and beautiful way.”
Abbott is the author of the new novel “You Will Know Me” (Little, Brown: 352 pp., $26), a thriller set in the world of competitive gymnastics, out just in time for the Olympics. She excels at crafting fiction that’s full of seeming innocents acting badly, topping bestseller lists with her novels “Dare Me” and “The Fever.”
As a child, Abbott was taken with the 1930s and ’40s movies she watched at a revival movie theater in Grosse Pointe. She credits the films with her lifelong interest in crime fiction.
“[My parents] would take me to see ‘Public Enemy’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Dinner at Eight,” Abbott says. “In particular, the gangster and the crime movies were so glamorous to me, and I think it's really where that all began.”
Abbott has come a long way from her youth in the suburbs of Detroit. After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she moved east, eventually earning a PhD. in literature from New York University.
“That's where I did my thesis on all this stuff, which was really an excuse to spend two years reading hard-boiled noir,” Abbott laughs. “Other than L.A., it's probably the most classically noir [city].”
“Die a Little” was her first novel, published in 2005. Two years later, she followed it up with “The Song Is You,” based on the 1949 disappearance of Hollywood actress Jean Spangler, and “Queenpin,” an Edgar Award-winning thriller set in the Southwest of the 1960s.
In recent years though, Abbott has left behind the hard-boiled mid-19th-century settings and turned to something equally as unsettling: the lives of young people in suburban communities, similar to the Michigan town where she grew up.
Her 2012 novel “Dare Me” is set in the competitive world of high school cheerleading, and “The Fever,” which was published in 2014, focuses on a suburban family thrown into disarray when a mysterious, contagious disease breaks out in their community, inspired by a recent incident.
“In some ways, it was easy to go from classic noir to that,” she explains about her move from gangsters and gun molls to contemporary suburban teenagers. “13-year-olds feel things so intensely, which is the rule of the world of noir. It's all sort of sex and aggression and confusion.”
That’s the case with “You Will Know Me,” which follows the family of a teenage gymnastics prodigy in the wake of a brutal hit-and-run death that rocks their community.
“Once I got in there, into the teen world, I got transfixed about how noir it really all is, how we're all, maybe more so than in past generations … aware of our adolescence shaping us in some key way,” she says. “I always think of [adolescence] as the age when all your nerves are exposed. So it was a natural transition from noir, because noir is such a heightened world. It's all feeling.”
Many of Abbott’s recent novels find her exploring the lives of so-called “mean girls” — the seemingly ruthless and mean young women made famous by the 2004 movie of the same name.
Abbott herself, it must be said, is very, very far from mean. But she met her share of mean girls in high school — the town she grew up in was also the inspiration for Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Virgin Suicides.”
Today, she finds herself sympathizing with the mean girls to some degree. “When you tear it all back, and also separate it from the weird ‘Lord of the Flies’ circumstance that is high school, [you realize] they were so trapped in their own identities too,” she explains. “We all were. We were all stuck in some way.”
The term “mean girls,” Abbott says, has become a kind of “cultural shorthand” that only scratches the surface of how young women grow up in contemporary society.
“[We’re] suddenly becoming more comfortable with the idea that girls can have aggressive and angry feelings,” she says. “It isn't just about popularity, but about a larger discontent with notions of girlhood, how girls are supposed to be. And so we call them ‘mean girls’ just as a way to make it feel cute and safe and cozy in a way that [the movie] ‘Heathers’ never was.”
In “You Will Know Me,” it’s not just the teenage gymnasts, but also their parents, who find themselves acting in petty and mean-spirited ways — the result, Abbott says, of the modern “helicopter parenting” culture.
“It's like a Freudian thing — if you go back as an adult, you can master it this time,” she explains. “These parents, you know, they're back in the world of teenagers somehow, but now they think they know how to do it, which makes them more dangerous in a way.”
Abbott’s Los Angeles stop on her book tour almost certainly won’t be the last time she visits the city that she credits with her interest in mystery fiction. Her novels “The Fever” and “Dare Me” are being tentatively developed into television shows for TNT and HBO, respectively. Abbott wrote the pilot episodes for both potential series. Meanwhile, Abbott is on the writing staff for the upcoming HBO show “The Deuce,” created by “The Wire” producer David Simon and author George Pelecanos.
That show, which stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal and is set to premiere in 2017, focuses on the Times Square of the 1970s and ’80s, when pornography and the Mafia were rampant in New York.
“I've only seen the pilot so far,” Abbott says. “It really looks like ’70s New York movies, like ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ and ‘Taxi Driver.’ It's really Times Square when it was three layers deep in filth and porn.”
Abbott praises Simon’s commitment to hiring novelists as television writers — writers for the series include authors Lisa Lutz and Richard Price, who also wrote for “The Wire” alongside novelists Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.
And she says she’s excited to get the chance to work for TV. “As someone who grew up loving movies so much and loving Hollywood and loving the entertainment business,” she says, “it's kind of wild to actually get to touch the hem of the garment.”
Schaub is a writer in Austin, Texas.