Jean Spangler: Megan Abbott’s Dahlia in The Song is You
With her second novel The Song is You (2007), Megan Abbott takes the case of the unsolved disappearance of 1940s Hollywood starlet Jean Spangler and creates a novel as emotionally powerful, but perhaps not as ambitious in scope, as James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987). The lead character, Gil Hopkins (Hop), is a reporter and Hollywood fixer. Two years after Spangler’s disappearance, Hop is approached by a black actress named Iolene, who claims that he buried evidence important to the Spangler case. Hop had introduced Spangler and Iolene to two movie stars the night Spangler went missing and then had withheld information from the press and gave the cops false leads on Spangler (who had dated a mobster). Now that the Spangler case, which the press dubs ‘The Daughter of the Dahlia’, has fizzled out, Hop begins his own investigation.
A reoccuring theme in the novel is the marking of the female body to symbolise masculinity. Men, including Hop, and society as a masculine audience, are drawn to female characters out of a form of hatred, which leads them to destroy. This is seen in the media’s handling of the Spangler case; they lose interest in her once the mob angle surfaces. As Hop puts it, ‘ So she’s no longer a possible victim of some snazzy sex criminal. Instead she becomes, well, you see it, a two-bit mob whore’. The newspaper’s stance is not only incriminating of itself but also of their audience–with no body, and thus no signs of torture to titillate, readers get bored. Hop’s relationship with his wife Midge also reflects this kind of hate-desire. Even before their marriage falls apart when she leaves him for his good-natured friend, their sex life indicts his masculine urge to destroy the feminine:
Each night he clamped his hand on one of her white dimpled knees and pushed it down flat on the rough hotel sheets and tried to f**k all their shared ugliness away. And all her beauty, too.
For Abbott, the femme fatale has lost her power to seduce, and women have become meat to be abused. That is not to say that Hop is not disgusted by himself and the world he inhabits. His investigation into Spangler’s disappearance becomes as much an emotional investigation of himself. Ultimately, Hop is a better man than the two sexually sadistic movie stars, who are Hop’s prime suspects, and ironically have earned their fame in upbeat Hollywood musicals (playing a Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly type duo). By comparison, Hop is more transparently flawed and compromised.
The torture-murder of Elizabeth Short and the disappearance of Jean Spangler are connected not only in terms of some of the details of the case, but in The Song is You, Abbott links the two women figuratively through the sexual torture of the female body. With Jean Spangler, Abbott has created a fictional portrayal of an unsolved mystery and unavenged victim that is every bit as haunting and powerful as Ellroy’s now iconic portrayal of the Elizabeth Short murder.