In Megan Abbott’s dark thrillers, you disappear into an intense circle of women, each looking over her shoulder. “Dare Me” focuses on a deeply competitive cheerleading squad; “The Fever” examines a curious hysteria within a group of teenage girls; “You Will Know Me” is set in the world of competitive women’s gymnastics; and her latest, “Give Me Your Hand,” unfolds as a triangle between three female scientists, two of whom knew each other as teens and share a horrific secret.
It’s curious that writing about women, particularly in the crime-fiction realm, is still considered noteworthy — particularly after Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” dominated the bestseller lists a few years ago with its twisty, unreliable narration, unleashing a parade of dark, female-focused thrillers on both page and screen. (When’s the last time you heard a book described as “male-focused”?)
“I think there’s a concept that crime fiction is or was male-dominated, but it really never has been,” said Abbott, on the phone from Manhattan on the eve of her “Give Me Your Hand” book tour (which includes a stop at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on July 30). Female authors and female anti-heroines, she said, “were always there, but ‘Gone Girl’ was so audacious and deliciously unrepentant in its dark female presence that I think it kind of opened the floodgates. It made publishers see that these books could sell.” (Asked to recommend a few favorites from the current new wave, Abbott named Attica Locke’s “Bluebird, Bluebird” and Ivy Pochoda’s “Wonder Valley.”)
Abbott, an Edgar Award winner, has been at it since long before the “Gone Girl” effect kicked in; “Give Me Your Hand” is her ninth novel. Her career grew out of an early love for noir film and novels, particularly the work of Raymond Chandler. In love with Chandler’s prose — “everything seemed like it had great meaning, drooping with melancholy and a sense of loss” — she wrote her Ph.D. thesis on noir fiction. And then, not yet having had her fill of that world of glamorous shadows, she tried writing an old-school noir novel. “Die a Little,” set in seamy 1950s Los Angeles, was published in 2005.
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“People assumed that I was trying to subvert historical noir,” she said, “and I think every bit of great tradition should be subverted, but that was not my intent. I just wanted to be in them.” Chandler’s works featured many femme fatales, she said, but not so many “women like me.”
After a few more crime thrillers set in the past (and released with delightfully lurid covers), Abbott made a conscious pivot. “I had a sense that I was a little too comfortable in the world of the earlier books,” she said. “I wasn’t ever getting into a sensitive or daring place for myself.” Her next novel, 2011’s “The End of Everything,” centered on a pair of teenage best friends and was set in a 1980s Midwest town not unlike the Detroit suburb in which Abbott grew up. “It was a time and place that I look back on now as being very dramatic, in a way that noir is,” she said. Adolescence, which she frequently mines in her books, is a time when “the stakes are very high.”
“Give Me Your Hand,” her latest, primarily takes place in the sterile gleam of a research lab; a rich setting for dark intrigue. Its building is “a sealed box, grim and featureless. Windows like mean slits, vertical fins on either side offering narrow places to smoke, scream.” In the lab, the tools of science take on a sinister cast: the mouse colony room; its advanced security door hinting that something awful might happen here; the fume hoods; the bluish light. And something awful does happen, within a page-turning, time-shifting plot that includes lonely researcher Kit, brilliant lab newcomer Diane, and the savagely perfumed Dr. Severin, chief investigator of a high-profile research project on PMDD — the little-understood condition of premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
Wanting to write a novel about women in a competitive environment, Abbott thought it would be intriguing if her characters were competing on an intellectual level. She began talking to female scientists and became fascinated with their world — particularly the concept of “lab-otage,” i.e. sabotaging each other’s lab experiments. “It’s so competitive,” she said. “People are there long hours, in that kind of rarefied airless environment — it just seemed so perfect.”
Even before its July 17 publication, “Give Me Your Hand” was attracting notice: AMC has optioned it for a possible series. In fact, Abbott has three projects currently in development for television. “You Will Know Me” was optioned recently, and “Dare Me” will shoot its pilot later this summer for the USA Network. Abbott wrote the script, and will be co-showrunner and co-executive producer.
Though no stranger to TV (Abbott is a staff writer for HBO’s “The Deuce”), she sounds giddily excited about “Dare Me” coming to the screen, after six years in development. “I’m pinching myself!” she said. Even the process of watching auditions feels wonderfully strange; seeing the characters she created suddenly reflected in actors she’s seen in other roles is “very disorienting and awesome.”
Also exciting: the fact that “Dare Me” will have a female director, a female director of photography, two female showrunners, and several female producers. “I don’t know if it would have been that way ten years ago, or even five,” Abbott said.
“I’ve had stuff in development before, but never this many at once,” Abbott said, citing HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and BBC’s “Killing Eve” as part of the current post-“Gone Girl” mood. “It does feel like something’s happening — that there’s this interest, which we knew already! Dark female stuff has always been there.”
Megan Abbott will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, July 30, at Third Place Books 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free; 206-366-3333, thirdplacebooks.com.