By Patricia Abbott
( Polis Books; June 9, 2015)
Any book that bluntly opens with the sentence, “When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda-pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours,” is going to be hard to put down.
This is doubly true of Concrete Angel, a grittily noir novel by Patti Abbott that was released this June.
The book bears a resemblance to James M. Cain's Depression-era noir masterpiece, Mildred Pierce.
But Concrete Angel is a reflection of Cain's novel as seen in a carnival sideshow mirror, sort of like the nightmarish maze where the final confrontation takes place in Lady From Shanghai: in Pierce, the mother breaks her heart trying to please her cold, unloving daughter; in Angel, the mother is the monster and the daughter, Christine, is her innocent victim.
The Angel of the book’s title is Eve Moran, neé Hobart, a shoplifter, hustler and thief raised by fanatically priggish parents whose only real emotions toward their wayward daughter appear to be shame and disgust.
From an early age, Eve hustles and connives, stealing from friends, relatives and neighbors before her graduation to pilfering from local shops. She stashes what she takes in a variety of hidey-holes, making her a hoarder as well as a kleptomaniac.
|Concrete Angel is like a sideshow mirror reflection of Mildred Pierce, the James M. Cain masterpiece.|
Unable to surpress her sociopathic personality, she marries well – scoring a husband, Hank, who is a military officer from a well-to-do family. Her excellent matchmaking, however, has little effect on her compulsions: she fails as a homemaker and mother, instead dedicating her time and talents to petty larceny.
For good or ill, her career as a thief is no more successful than her career as a domestic helpmeet: Eve is unable to plan her crimes in sufficient detail to avoid detection. Caught stealing on more than one occasion, she gains a reputation for trivial pilferage among the residents of her suburban community in the Pennsylvania countryside.
A one-day shoplifting binge at four upscale Philadelphia department stores, however, proves her temporary undoing and she is eventually committed to a mental institution to “treat” her compulsive criminality with talky therapy sessions.
A "relapse" afterward puts her in a less collegial facility where she is regularly subjected to drugs, insulin treatments and electroshock.
None of these treatments slow down her criminal behavior in the slightest.
Her antisocial actions lead her to more organized forms of criminality while her husband, repelled by her behavior, begins sleeping around. When he discovers she is embezzling from a shop that is part of his family’s business interests – stealing from her kin in the process – he returns home to confront her with the evidence of her guilt and finds her in bed, boffing the psychoanalyst he has retained to treat her psychopathic behavior.
Soon after they divorce, Eve picks up a man, Jerry Santini, the soda pop-dealer referred to in the book’s first sentence, for a one-night stand. But Eve can’t even make it through the night without committing a mortal sin: when Santini returns from the bathroom and finds her taking money from his wallet, Eve empties a pistol into him, killing him immediately.
|Eve shoots Jerry Santini after he catches her rifling his wallet: "Mother caught him in the chest, the ribs, the thigh; she emptied the entire chamber, in fact. He'd been shooting his mouth off when she started pulling the trigger."|
Committing cold-blooded murder for a few dollars in spending money would be bad enough, but what follows is Eve’s greatest betrayal in the book: she sacrifices her daughter’s reputation and future by persuading her to take the rap for killing Santini.
Christine, not yet in her teens, willingly complies.
“So I stepped in with my special skill set,” the adoring daughter tells us. “Saving Mother was something I was born to do. It had come into play with great regularity in my twelve years.”
Inured to serving as Eve’s scapegoat, “I badly needed someone’s help, someone who might shine a light on my relationship with my mother, tell me it wasn’t normal for a mother to see her daughter as someone to manipulate, to use. Such insight from a therapist skilled in breaking through a façade might have saved me years of pain.”
Unfortunately, despite the fact that her mother is the one with the record of repeated petty crimes, extended commitments to mental facilities and a lifetime of lying and cheating, the judicial bureaucracy accepts the fantasy that Christine has “accidentally” committed a homicide.
Forcing her daughter to take the fall for murder is not the last of Eve’s repellent acts, but it marks the end of her daughter’s unquestioning trust and the beginning of Christine’s rehabilitation as something besides a sacrificial lamb.
Christine eventually learns that her psychotic mother is not the only one who has taken advantage of her gullibility and naiveté. As we discover in the final pages of the novel, the number of people who have enabled Eve’s psychopathic behavior – at the expense of her devoted daughter – is shocking.
By the end of the book’s 309 pages, the reader is more than ready to see Eve get her just deserts. But this is noir, after all, which means no handcuffs, courtroom confrontations or long prison terms. Instead, when Eve’s past finally catches up to her, her comeuppance is satisfyingly unsatisfying.
The novel is framed from the perspective of Eve’s biggest victim, Christine, whom she has hopelessly seduced. The daughter’s indoctrination makes her willing to accept patently transparent explanations for heinous acts until the evidence of her mother’s illness is unavoidable.
For example, in referring to Eve’s obsession with petty thievery, Christine says blandly “She was perfectly willing to acquire things legitimately when the means presented themselves. It didn’t always work out, though, so she improvised.”
By telling the story from point of view of a victim who either can’t or won’t recognized her victimization, Abbott adds to its pathos and enlists the reader as Christine’s psychic ally.
The book is stuffed with period details that are so deftly rendered that the reader always knows the year. This is achieved not by piling on paragraphs of description, but by slipping in a few well-chosen words or a sentence or two.
In sketching Eve’s ill-starred shoplifting expedition to Philly, for example, Abbott writes that Wanamaker's, one of the department stores she visits, “was the emporium where dreams were made, boasting the largest organ in the world, which hovered over the Grand Court . . .[the color] Lilac was big – tiny checks, taffeta, cinched waists. Women mirrored Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. The number of blondes had decreased since the presidential election two years ago. Suddenly brunettes, willowy thin, were in vogue.”
You can almost hear the rustle of fine fabrics and the rasp of nylon on nylon as wealthy women saunter through a fog of expensive perfume with their purchases.
Despite the grimness of the tale, Abbott manages to put a smile on the reader's face by sliding in some snappy repartee. In one passage, Eve quarrels with her husband about having his husky sister, Linda, (who Eve sneeringly refers to as “Tubbylinda “) stay with them. Eve is appalled and argues against the idea, fearing the real reason for the stay is for Linda to act as her chaperon. Hank ends the discussion by saying “Look, bear with me till things get straightened out. I have a lot on my plate.”
“But not as much as your sister has on hers,” Eve snidely replies, a clear reference to Linda’s obesity.
Occasionally Abbott switches to Eve’s point of view so we can experience what she is thinking. At one point in the narrative, Eve unexpectedly kisses her shrink, the appropriately named Dr. Richard Cox. “His lips were drier than a snake’s would be if a snake had lips,” she thinks.
I have enjoyed Abbott’s short stories since I read “The Higher the Heels,” in issue eight of Todd Robinson’s excellent quarterly, Thuglit. I was even more impressed with her storytelling skill in Home Invasion, stories about a family of low-life grifters that are so intricately knit they read like chapters of a novel.
Patti – like Patricia Highsmith, Vicki Hendricks, Bonnie Jo Campbell and other practitioners whose writings are more cosh than cozy – is proof that women write hardboiled so well-cooked it could be sliced on top of a Cobb salad; she may sport a pair of cabretta leather gloves with feminine elegance, but be warned: she is really wearing them to keep her fingerprints off the blackjack she uses to smack her readers upside the head.
As a fan of her work, I was intrigued to see that a chunk of Concrete Angel had turned up earlier as part of her short story “A White Funeral” in Shotgun Honey Reloaded (Both Barrels), Issue 2. It suggests that she, like Chandler, “cannibalizes” her stories looking for passages that would work in longer pieces.
That’s good; very good.
It means as long as she is writing great short tales for mags and anthos, there is a chance we will be seeing similar passages get recycled into terrific novels like Concrete Angel. I can hardly wait to read them.