Originally published in 2007
Some ebook editions include Abbott’s short story Policy that this novel was based upon.
A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protégée the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet–as long as she doesn’t take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protégée scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.
This week has not exactly turned out as I had planned. I had a bunch of vacation days that I could take so I decided that I would take several days this week. The plan was that this would allow me to be able to stay up late and watch the election, get some sleep once it was all called and then take a few relaxing days to recover, catch up on reading and blogging. I am still pretty much in the first stage of that plan. Thankfully I still have the weekend to recover!
So, why am I telling you this? Well, I read Queenpin on Tuesday morning before heading to work. It has been a sleepless few days since then as I have been transfixed by coverage, finding myself unable to concentrate on anything else. Point of illustration – right now I have the coverage on the TV muted in the background. As a result, I suspect whatever careful and considered analysis I might have offered about the details of the book has disappeared from my mind to be replaced by vote margins in the various counties around where I live (which as of the time of writing appears in recount territory).
This is a shame because Queenpin is a book that deserves thoughtful thematic analysis. No doubt I will have to revisit it at some point though I would like to try some of Abbott’s other works first.
Queenpin is the story of a young, unnamed woman who takes a job as a bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub that her father also works at. He is oblivious to the illegal activities taking place there but she realizes that the owners are connected and, when she is asked to produce a second set of books, engaged in a dangerous game with their bosses. Gloria Denton comes by regularly to inspect the books and collect the bosses’ share of the take. She quickly spots what they are up to but, having taken a shine to the narrator and recognizing that she is smart and capable, opts to exclude her from the punishment and take her on as an assistant.
Gloria teaches the narrator the basics and gets her started with a few collection gigs. She is provided with a home, beautiful clothes and lots of other luxuries. Her life seems pretty comfortable but then she has the misfortune of meeting a young and reckless man and before long she finds herself making some questionable and dangerous decisions…
Queenpin is a work that seeks to deconstruct and reassess the central tropes and relationships of noir storytelling. Abbott transforms the typical structure of such stories by flipping the usual gender assignments, providing us with a female protagonist and mentor and, in Vic, a homme fatale. In the wrong hands this could have been an excuse for a gimmicky type of storytelling but Abbott uses this idea to explore deeper ideas relating to the career expectations based on gender and class in this period, social mobility, consumerism and of female sexuality.
The decision to not provide a name for the protagonist is an interesting one. I think it is intended to remind us that our focus is not so much on the individual but the idea of what she represents. She is as much an archetype as Walter Huff or Frank Chambers. But Abbott isn’t going to craft multiple novels to explore that idea – instead she does it in just one book, providing us with a model for an ambitious and competent everywoman who wants to make herself something more.
To emphasize that this character is not a one-off, even within the world she has created, Abbott creates Gloria – a character who inhabits a familiar world of gangsters. Where the protagonist remains somewhat hazily drawn, Gloria is described in very clear detail and established as successful and inspiring. She is a woman who has lasted in a tough and violent world, outlasting several of her peers, and retains a sense of dignity and style. It is clear that our protagonist views her as a model for who she wants to be, though she does not always listen to the advice she is given.
The development of the main character’s criminal career is intriguing though it is not really the focus of the book. We do get some interesting discussion of money laundering but the focus of the book is more on interpersonal relationships.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the relationship between the protagonist and Gloria. Gloria takes a number of risks and provides a lot to the main character throughout this novel. It begins with the trouble she takes to protect her from being caught up in the reprisals against her bosses but she goes much further, dressing her, giving her jewelry, a home and a car. She raises her up and remakes her as the woman she thinks she should be.
There are several possible interpretations of these choices. She could simply be seeing potential in her, crafting her into a version of herself to make it possible to step back from (or expand) her professional activities. She might also feel protective of her, seeing something of herself in her and seeking to strengthen her. Or, and this is the one I find most convincing, she may actually have fallen in love with her and be trying to turn her into an ideal lover. If it is the last of these options, I think the relationship is probably never consumated, though I suspect that the main character is aware of her power over her and comes to exploit it.
What I find most compelling about this last possibility is that, if true, it raises an interesting parallel with the main character’s own misguided relationship. Throughout the novel Gloria advises her to avoid romantic or flirtatious entanglements, suggesting that they would compromise her and make her weak. We see evidence of that in her misguided relationship with Vic, a character whose appeal is a little hard for me to perceive though I understand that her feelings are simply beyond her control and she is simply drawn to him. Is Gloria’s advice given out of jealousy or possessiveness or is it simply good advice that she herself is failing to follow. I am not entirely sure what I think but I found this ambiguity to be really interesting.
By comparison her relationship with Vic is much flatter and while I understand its importance to the plot, this is the least complex aspect of the novel. Perhaps that reflects that this is simply a more familiar relationship with a pretty direct reversal of the usual gender roles. Much of the material that is added to this novel in expanding it from its original short story form relates to this aspect of the story and at times it does feel a little like padding. Still, I think the payoff to this aspect of the story is satisfying and I enjoyed the reflections on it towards the end of the novel.
Overall I felt that Queenpin was a clever and largely satisfying exploration of theme and situation. Is it revolutionary? Perhaps not, but I think the more familiar aspects of the plot are necessary to allow for commentary and reflection on noir tropes. It certainly left me curious to try some of Abbott’s other work which I gather is more contemporary. If you have any recommendations please feel free to share!
The Verdict: An enjoyable exploration of some of the common themes and tropes of noir fiction.