I wish I could roll the clock back to June of 2018 and read “Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession” immediately on its publication. No, I wish I’d snared the advanced reading copy and read it in the months before, if only to be prepared to shout, “Read this book!” to every reachable corner of this wretched country the moment other people could finally buy it. I wish I’d been an evangelist for the book all along.
“Dead Girls” is a collection of essays by Alice Bolin — a graduate of the University of Montana with an MFA in poetry — her first. What finally secured my interest to read it was learning that it has been nominated for an Edgar award. The Edgars, from the Mystery Writers of America, are a series of awards akin to the Oscars in Hollywood. If you are a crime writer, a mystery writer, or work in such genres in television or movies, for example, you want an Edgar. Bolin’s book is in the running for “Best Critical/Biographical” work. I have friends who write crime fiction. Some have been nominated for Edgar awards, and a couple have won them. But what they write, and what my original impressions of what Bolin’s book is about, didn’t seem to line up. Then I considered Megan Abbott, whose exuberant blurb adorns the front cover of “Dead Girls.” Abbott’s early work — steamy period pieces focused on female characters, like her novel “Queenpin,” which won an Edgar for “Best Paperback Original” in 2007 — are some of the best examples of crime/noir genre I’ve ever read. If Bolin’s book is good enough for Abbott, it’s good enough for me. I’m happy I took her advice.
What Bolin does in her essay collection is skewer most of the tropes that drove me from reading a lot of crime literature in the first place. In particular, the “Dead Girl” plot point that inspires the title. The book resulted, Bolin explains in her introduction, from an essay she wrote about the season finale of the first season of the HBO series “True Detective.” It is a genre of television she dubs “The Dead Girl Show,” with its most notable antecedent found in the classic '90s series from David Lynch, “Twin Peaks.”
I’m one of those rare people who hasn’t ever watched “Twin Peaks,” but I recognize the angle Bolin takes: the “dead girl” as plot device. How many movies and stories kill a young woman — a “girl” — right out of the gate so that the hero can be driven to find her killer, either to bring to justice or kill in vengeful retribution? Morbidly, these girls are always portrayed, even in death, as beautiful, splayed on beds in blood-splashed rooms, soft flesh and dead gazes still somehow wanton. Never mind the rape and murder as trope to show just how bad a dude the villain is. The list, sadly, is practically endless. And I didn’t realize just how tired of it all I was until Bolin started spotlighting it.
The book is built on three primary legs. First is media, whether books, television, movies or music. Next is how Bolin takes her experiences with this media and shares its affect on her life and where she lives, at various points in her life, to make her story even more relatable. Lastly, gloriously, is the black humor that infuses her insights. In opening a discussion of Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” a novel Didion wrote in 1970 that isn’t exactly known for being an uplifting experience, Bolin remarks, “You have to be a special kind of depressive to read this book more than once, especially more than once back to back.” That’s the kind of wry, self-deprecating darkness that I love in this kind of work.
I haven’t seen most of the movies or read most of the books Bolin references, but it isn’t necessary to have done so. Nor does she remain on the dead girl theme throughout. Mostly, this is a book about how Western society treats women. The point being made is clear — Bolin is a gifted storyteller — and it is depressing how far we still have to go as it relates to how we treat women across the board, not just in media. How our culture grinds women down. How irrational it all is. How maddening.
I am pulling for Bolin to win her Edgar, especially because I doubt it ever crossed her mind that it would ever be a possibility. That amuses me in a way I suspect might amuse her, too. It would be fitting, given the relationship of her work to the work celebrated in crime-writing circles, and deserves a win. Mostly, though, I want it to win because it’s a hell of a book that warrants every kind of recognition that will generate more readers.