Home > 2000, 21st Century, Abott Megan, American Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Noir, Polar, TBR20, Thriller, Translations > The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott (2007) French title: Absente. Translated by Benjamin Legrand.

Megan Abbott was at Quais du Polar a few years ago and I had the opportunity to talk to her and she signed my French copy of The Song Is You. It was time for me to finally read it.

The book opens in 1949, in Hollywood. An ambitious starlet, Jean Spangler leaves her home to go to a night shooting at a studio. She never comes back. The only thing that was ever found was her handbag in a park. The case is closed quickly by the police and remains unsolved.

Then we’re in 1951. Pushed by Jean’s friend Iolene, the journalist Gil Hopkins starts investigating Jean’s disappearance again. Jean was involved with actors who had violent and degrading parties and possibly with the mafia.

Gil Hopkins is a journalist turned into a well-known PR person for a studio in Hollywood. He spins stories for a living, in order to keep the studio’s actors out of bad press. He benefited of Jean’s disappearance in a way because he was the one who helped her studio erase any link between her and them that night.

Gil Hopkins (Hop) is a troubled character, a womanizer who drove his wife into the arms of his best friend. A man attracted by Hollywood’s fake lights like a moth to a flame. He has money to buy fine clothes but at what price for his integrity? Of course, he drinks a little too much and spends too much time in bars. He’s handsome, has a real talent for spinning stories and feeding them to the press. He knows how to swim in muddy waters.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in discovering what happened to Jean Spangler and I abandoned The Song Is You after reading half of it. I figured that if I wasn’t hooked by a crime fiction novel after 150 pages, then it was probably time to spend my precious reading time on something else. It didn’t help that the translation had some mishaps, mostly frenglish translation. Completed cannot become complété in French. And executives are cadres, not exécutifs.

The Song Is You is a tribute to Chandler but to me it remained aspartame Noir. It reconstructs the atmosphere of Hollywood in the golden age. All the details are probably accurate but it lacks the feeling of the writer who actually lived that time. It’s well-crafted but it’s not the same. It is also based on a true story and I think it might even be a cold case. It’s hard not to think of it as a reference to The Black Dahlia.

I felt like Megan Abbott was slipping into someone else’s shoes instead of using hers. Although he’s a lot less detail oriented about Hollywood, I preferred Jake Hinkson’s Not Tomorrow. It is set in the 1940s but he doesn’t try to create another Chandler or another Cain. He made the setting his own and wrote a book with his own voice. He didn’t try too hard to respect some Noir codes.

So, I left Hop in Hollywood and hopped on another crime fiction trip with Les suppliciées du Rhône by Coline Gatel.

  1. April 6, 2019 at 5:01 pm

    Ah well. This one is my favourite Abbott. But as you say if 150 pages don’t grab you, it’s time to move on.

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  2. April 7, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    Aspartame noir – great phrase 😀 There must be an abundance of English to French translators, it’s a shame this translation was so clunky. I’ve got a lot quicker to abandon books I’m not getting on with as I’ve got older, so I think you made the right choice.

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    • April 7, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks! 🙂
      About the translation: it depends how long the translator had to do it. When you speak a lot of English, it’s a common mistake to use Frenglish like this, words that are alike in English and French but don’t mean the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. April 9, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Like Guy I really liked this (there’s a review way back in the archives at mine). I do wonder if the translation might have killed it. That said, 150 pages is more than enough to give it a fair shot. For crime I think if by 50 I wasn’t grabbed, maybe less, I’d bail.

    Interesting thought at the end there regarding how respectful one should be, the same issue arises when converting books to films. I do think one has to be a bit disrespectful or you’ll just create an imitation, not something alive in its own right.

    Aspartame noir is a brilliant phrase.

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    • April 10, 2019 at 10:10 pm

      I don’t think that the translation killed it, despite clumsy moments.
      I agree with you about being a bit disrespectful when adapting something. Jazz singers who sing classics don’t try to sound like Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday. They take the songs and they become theirs but remain the same songs.

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