Bury Me Deep/ Megan Abbot
Simon and Schuster Paperbacks,2009
Marion Seely chooses men who are wrong inside, beginning with her morphine-addicted doctor husband. When Everett Seely leavers her in Phoenix in 1930, heading off to a job in Mexico, she is vulnerable, a waif ripe for corruption. She has no idea how deeply into her soul that corruption will ultimately reach.
Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep is based on an actual crime, a six-week-wonder scandal from 1932. The story of the actual trial and the twists and turns of 1930s justice is a story in itself, but Abbott uses the convicted “Trunk Murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd as a jumping-off place for a different kind of book, as she explores what would make a woman do what Judd did.
Marion, a sheltered minister’s daughter who married Seely when she was nineteen, still seems surprisingly innocent for someone who has dealt with her husband’s addiction, including the loss of his medical license, for four years. When he leaves her in Phoenix she is shy, fearful and friendless, but is soon “adopted” by the bold, boisterous Louise Mercer, a nurse at the clinic where Marion works. Marion becomes fast friends with Louise and her room-mate Ginny, who has tuberculosis. At first, Louise and Ginny simply seem like carefree high-spirited girls, and Marion doesn’t see anything strange about the parties with the boot-leg hooch, the parade of socially well-placed men, and the extravagant gifts that crowd the women’s small duplex. Then she meets “Gentleman Joe” Lanigan, a drug store king; Gentleman Joe, member of the Chamber of Commerce, Knights of Columbus; Joe with his penetrating gaze, his movie-star looks, his beguiling words and his big car. Marion is lost.
The first part of the book is long, leisurely to the point of slowness. Abbott wants us to feel the heat of the Arizona desert, see the effect of poverty in Marion’s careful ironing of her “one good dress,” understand the desperation of her loneliness as we read her poignant letters (often unsent) to her husband. Abbott pulls us inch by hot, sweet inch into the maelstrom of Marion’s sexual infatuation with Joe. Marion has self-insight, which allows her to see that she is sinning, and shredding her self-respect, but she is helpless to stop herself.
This section of the book has, pardon the oxymoron, a brutal lyricism. Marion struggles to imagine her relationship with Joe as a fairy tale or a movie:
Later, she would try to tell herself the story of that hour as if it were a fairy tale: the knight climbed up the tower clasped in three centuries of ivy and he cut through the ivy with a mighty sword and found the fair maiden and she was his.
Later she would see that hour as if it were a motion picture; a leading man, so handsome, and the leading lady, bathed with white light, and he moving toward her and she toward him, jittery and lovely.” (p 47)
Unfortunately, Marion’s eyes and ears are open, and she knows the truth when she hears it:
“ ‘Oh, Marion,’ he said, ‘Look what I have done.’
But when he pulled his hands from his face she saw no grief at all, no trace of stricken remorse.
“ ‘I have made you a whore,’ he said, and he couldn’t stop his smile. Saw no need to.” (p 64)
For Joe, corruption of women is something between a hobby and an art form.
The seeds of trouble have been expertly planted much earlier in the story, and they sprout and blossom quickly. Marion has remained willfully blind to certain facts, and now those facts strike her in the face, and she is left with two bodies and a floor covered with blood. There is no one but Joe, untrustworthy Joe, to help her.
At this point the sections of the book become very short. Structurally, this is jarring after the long lead-in and I wish Abbott had not called attention to it by labeling the sections Part Two, Part Three, etc. In spite of the stylistic interruptions the suspense builds and the plot spins in ways that are startling yet well-developed and plausible. The most surprising character is Everett Seely who, far from abandoning his wife, returns and tries to help her even after she has confessed everything to him. Abbott blends the gritty suspense of a good noir novel with small feminine details perfectly, whether it’s Marion remembering the trim on a set of lingerie or thinking, as she hunts through the bad part of town for Dr. Seely, that, through the platinum bleach job Louise gave her, her dark roots are starting to show.
The novel is noir, which means it won’t end well, but Marion emerges in the final pages as someone tempered by fire and darkness, someone strong and compassionate, able to reach out to another woman in trouble, even trouble Marion herself has caused:
“ . . . Marion said. ‘ I set you out for him. I did everything but lift your schoolgirl skirt for him. And now I’m taking you away. I would not leave you here, Elsie. For all the world.’ “ (p 224)
The book benefits from a cover that promises exactly what you get; a portrait of three women, the central foreground figure exhausted, tawdry, yet engaging, against a red background that could be paint, nail polish, or blood. The back cover continues the 1930s theme in sepia tones with two characters in 30s vintage clothing. Abbott obviously researched Prohibition and the Great Depression thoroughly and at times uses slang that’s too obscure, sacrificing clarity for authenticity. Still, all the elements of a story are here, so tightly interwoven that to tease one free would collapse the whole structure like a Jenga tower. At times what happens to Marion, and what she does to herself, is so terrible we squirm, but we can’t look away. This book delivers.