Thursday, July 9, 2015

Concrete Angel [book report]

I haven't read any other reviews of Patricia Abbott's fine debut noir novel, Concrete Angel, but I can't imagine any of them—up to and including the likes of Michiko Kakutani, the dragon queen of New York literary reviewers—starting out any other way than something like this: Concrete Angel begins with a bang, quite literally. Six of them in fact.

There. I didn't put it in quotes because for all I know I'm the first, and I intend to post this without checking for others.

So the chief villain in this story, a gorgeous, highly talented woman the narrator calls Mother, pumps six bullets into a soda-pop salesman in her apartment. She had picked him up at a shoe-repair shop only hours earlier and enjoyed a romp with him in her bed before dispatching him with a revolver. He'd caught her taking bills from his wallet and had grabbed the phone to call the police. “Mother” couldn't allow this, as she already had something of a record and had an aversion to jail. Thus, relying on the time-tested felon's credo that dead men tell no tales, she silenced him before he could make the call.

On second thought, it occurred to her the killing might cause her more trouble than the theft of a few dollars. She needed an alibi, a fall guy...something. Mother was not about to take the rap for murder. Maybe, just maybe, she could pin it on...why, this story's narrator, of course! Twelve-year-old Christine, her daughter, asleep in the next room.

Christine had slept through the murder, all six bangs of it. But her mother shook her awake and the two had a tearful chat. The girl was smart for her age but would do anything for her mother's approval. She went along with a concocted version of how the killing went down. She pled guilty to shooting the salesman after she saw him “trying to strangle” her mother. The court gave her probation and ordered counseling.

Concrete Angel is Christine's story, but she keeps the spotlight throughout on Mother, who comes across as a sort of amalgam of the Joan Crawford of Mommie Dearest and Mame of Auntie Mame. I should note I've read neither of the aforementioned accounts by relatives of the title characters. The stars in each are larger-than-life dominant women, and the sense I have of them from popular accounts seems to fit Mother quite well: a narcissistic, compulsively acquisitive sociopath brilliantly adept at manipulating others.

We follow Christine's incremental awakening to the reality of her mother and their relationship, which, while seeming at first to Christine an enviable mother-daughter intimacy gradually shows itself to be a dangerous illusion. Ultimately Christine has serious urges to kill her mother in order to rescue her much younger brother from falling into the same trap that threatened to smother her.

Christine's voice is chillingly authentic as she reveals to us her growing awareness of a nightmare from which escape begins to look impossible. The climax of Concrete Angel matches the stunning opening in gaping suspense.

While Concrete Angel is Patricia Abbott's first published novel, she's an award-winning crime fiction writer with more than 100 published stories including two ebooks: Monkey Justice and Home Invasion. Um, yeah, I guess you could say I'm a fan.

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