by Megan Abbott
Published by Simon & Schuster
192 pages, June 2007
She Stoops to Conquer
Reviewed by James R. Winter
She started out keeping books at a hole-in-the-wall joint called Club Tee-Hee. Her bosses, Jerome and Arthur, bided their time before bedding her, mainly because she could cook the books better than anyone. Then she met her.
I'd been working the new system for four or five days when I first saw her. The place was hissing with stories told behind hands as she walked into the place. About the big gees and button men she tossed with back in the day, everyone from Dutch Schulz to Joey Adonis and Lucky himself.
Turns out, she came in every few weeks, sipping a club soda with a twist and counting Jerome's vig before she drove off in her alpine white El Dorado to kick it Upstairs. Her name was Gloria Denton.
We never learn our protagonist's name in Megan Abbott's latest novel, Queenpin, but we certainly get to know her and the mysterious Gloria Denton. Gloria rocks our heroine's world in the waning days of the American mob's golden era. She is a legend, admired and feared perhaps more than any gun-toting thug. She even has the scars from the one time she crossed one of her bosses. Our girl is smitten with Gloria. It's not overtly sexual, if it's sexual at all, but she belongs to Gloria. She learns her lessons well.
You have to decide who you are, little girl, she told me once. Once you know that, everyone else will, too.
It's a good relationship. Under Gloria's tutelage, our girl becomes hard and smart. She also earns a lot of cash. With an apartment and a car as part of her job, she's soon living a comfortable life.
But it's not enough. When she goes behind Gloria's back to set up a burglary, she gets a taste for more cash. It not only pads her wallet, but it gives her the thrill of rebelling against Gloria. She wants more.
... [T]he whole deal with the furrier turned out to be bad for business. It gave me a taste for more when all I could think about already was getting more, getting my hands on, and in, more. It'd been so easy and the paycheck so big. Why, I'd be a chump not to look for other chances, I figured. As much as she'd given me in the ten, twelve months I'd worked for her, I was already looking to up the ante. If I'd thought about it, I'd've been ashamed of myself. But I didn't. I just kept going.
Soon, she meets Vic Riordan, a degenerate gambler who knows how to push her buttons. Vic turns on the heat and soon beds our girl on a regular basis. It's a mistake Gloria has warned her never to make. She makes it anyway, gladly, willingly. Soon, she's on the hook to get Vic out of debt, arranging to let him mug her for the money she collects. Like everything else in Vic's life, it's a foolproof plan.
Like all of Vic's foolproof plans, though, it all goes straight to hell. Soon, our girl finds herself first trying to save Vic, then herself, from Gloria. Before long, she and Gloria are fighting for their individual survival, each eyeing the other warily.
Queenpin is a story about crossed loyalties and personal rebellion. Even the narrator's stubborn refusal to give us her name seems an act of rebellion. She rebels against her father by taking the bookkeeping job, then cooking the books. She rebels against Jerome and Arthur by letting Gloria take her under her wing. She rebels against Gloria by sleeping with Vic. Her rebellion, however, gets her into trouble, and by the end of this book, it's all about who will be left standing: our heroine, or Gloria Denton? One should keep in mind that Gloria does nothing unless it's on her own terms, including lose. It's a lesson our girl learns the hard way, but she learns it well. | June 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. Winter makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. Experience his unique brand of dementia at Northcoast Exile.