Funny, she doesn’t bake like a femme fatale . . . Alice, the heroine maudite of Megan Abbott’s debut novel, “made a raspberry-coconut jelly roll for a brunch. . . . A rum-and-cherry-cola marble cake for a cocktail party. . . . [S]he spent hours making cream-puff swans shaped from what she carefully pronounced as a ‘pâté à chou.’ ” Nevertheless, schoolteacher Lora harbors suspicions about her brother Bill’s new wife that no amount of molded gelatin rings or strawberries Biltmore can quell. Alice admits to a past, but perhaps she has a present too.
This ’50s-set noir wavers between homage and recuperation. Much of Abbott’s prose emulates—cleverly—the pulps of the ’40s and ’50s, yet her inclusion of a female lead, a female narrator, and contemporary sensibilities reclaims noir from male mouths and pens. CUNY’s Feminist Press has recently republished some splendid pulp fiction by women, but even these don’t offer first-person female narrators (of the better-known noir, only Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man qualifies). Few psychological thrillers, by writers of either sex, offer such material, sensual, delicious catalogs of food, clothing, hairstyles, and especially kitchenware. In Abbott’s hands, casserole dishes, folding chairs, and a “Cornwall Thermo Tray with gold finish and wooden handles for serving hot artichoke hors d’oeuvres and tuna squares” have never seemed so sexy.