More perhaps than most, Megan Abbott knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and women, too). This explains Ms. Abbott’s ability to conjure the perfect bad guy — ahem, a contractor — in her latest crime novel, the ballet-centric thriller, “The Turnout,” which will be published Aug. 3.
Let the record show that Ms. Abbott, 49, also the author of “Dare Me,” “You Will Know Me” and “Take My Hand,” was not writing from personal experience.
Seventeen years ago, when she and her then husband, Josh Gaylord, also a novelist, bought a junior four in Forest Hills, Queens, they were completing Ph.D. programs and had the anemic bank accounts to prove it. The kitchen, which had long since been renovated on the cheap, would have greatly benefited from an intervention, and the floors needed refinishing. But serious home improvement would have to wait. (It’s still waiting.)
“We were young and foolish, and what we did was mostly cosmetic,” Ms. Abbott said. She and Mr. Gaylord replaced a stretch of cigarette-smoke-infused, gold-threaded brocade wallpaper with a far more sedate silver stripe and did some painting. But they gave a very wide berth to anything that would have required the presence of a contractor.
“They tell you, ‘Write what you’re afraid of,’” Ms. Abbott said, with a smile.
Megan Abbott, 49
It’s a steal: “It was very common in the ’90s to have your apartment broken into. In Hell’s Kitchen, the lock on the door to my building never worked. This is the first place I’ve lived in New York where I haven’t been burglarized.”
“For a crime writer, the contractor-client relationship is infused with possibilities,” she said. “I’ve known people whose renovations lasted a year or more; the contractor disappeared. And I know of contractors who couldn’t get people to pay them. That’s the other side.”
“Weirdly,” she added, “one of my favorite guilty pleasures is watching ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey,’ and there are a couple of contractors on that show, and they never seem to be finishing jobs. It’s a little bit like a fairy-tale or vampire thing. Once you let the contractor in …”
Ms. Abbott moved from the Detroit area in 1994 to attend graduate school at New York University, renting first in Park Slope, Brooklyn, then in Hell’s Kitchen, where there were holes in the floor and vagrants in the lobby.
“I did kind of love it,” she said. “I was coming from Grosse Pointe, so it had a great bohemian feel. But there’s a certain point in your life where you think it would be nice to live in a place that doesn’t require you to step over broken 40-ounce beer bottles.”
Buying a place in Forest Hills was a blend of the random and the counterintuitive. Friends of Mr. Gaylord’s had grown up there, and the couple decided to take a look around. “Nobody was going from Manhattan to Queens at that time. It was the opposite direction, so it was a good moment to get into that market, and this was a good deal,” Ms. Abbott said of the 1,000-square-foot, L-shaped space.
A good deal, perhaps, because it overlooked the Long Island Rail Road. Double-paned windows were a must.
Still, the apartment was lovely, full of built-in mahogany bookcases, courtesy of the previous owner, a woodworker. And Ms. Abbott was charmed by the original 1950s bathroom. “I’m probably the only person in the building who hasn’t torn it out,” she said. “I love the old-fashioned quality.”
She was a bit ahead of the curve in making the apartment a celebration of midcentury modern. “Not Eames,” Ms. Abbott clarified, “but regular-person midcentury modern.”
A year after she moved into the apartment, her grandparents began downsizing, and Ms. Abbott fell heir to a classic 1950s coffee table and a two-tier side table, both with tile inlay. That furniture was right at home with the Russel Wright tableware (a wedding present from Ms. Abbott’s parents) and with the cache of chalkware — plaster of Paris figurines and wall hangings that were handed out as prizes at carnivals and became popular décor during the postwar era. For what it’s worth, they’re heavy enough to be murder weapons.
“My dad collected them, so I started collecting them, and we would give them to each other as presents. He passed away a few years ago, so I took some of the pieces I’d given him,” said Ms. Abbott, whose holdings include a Shirley Temple, a Snow White, a cowboy and a cornucopia of brightly colored fruit.
Vintage midcentury modern flamenco- and ballet-dancer figures hang on a wall in the living room. “I see them as providing some bohemian artistic energy for a 1950s Long Island family,” she said. “I’ve always loved the ballerina fantasy in pop culture — this perfect, pristine thing — so I often end up with tchotchkes that have the ballerina vibe. Obviously, ‘The Turnout’ was long in coming.”
A frequent topic of discussion during psychotherapy sessions, Ms. Abbott said, is her financial diffidence. She was a staff writer and story editor on the HBO series “The Deuce”; a creator of the USA Network series “Dare Me,” an adaptation of her 2012 mystery about a ruthless cheerleading squad; and she’s developing “The Turnout” as a limited series. But success has not gone to her head — or to her apartment.
“I’ve never been the one to say, ‘Oh, there’s this fabulous $5,000 couch that I want.’ It’s never really been about that for me,” she said. “But I am an addicted collector. And I’ve felt freer, after having done some TV shows, to make a high bid and get a few special books.”
Among them are first editions of “The Moth” and “The Butterfly” by James M. Cain; a first-edition of Daphne du Maurier’s underappreciated thriller “My Cousin Rachel,” and reams of first-edition pulp fiction like Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury.”
“Some of them are pretty obscure,” Ms. Abbott said. “But if they have an interesting cover or a great title like ‘The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope’….’”
An original Spanish-language poster for “Some Like It Hot,” one of her favorite movies, was also something of a splurge. It hangs over her desk. Make of that what you will.
The crowded shelves above the computer frequently change their payload. “It’s stuff to look at to stimulate my imagination,” she said.
At the moment, there are a few mannequin hands (perhaps the start of another collection), tarot cards, bone dice, a few ballerina figurines, a “Nutcracker” soldier, a Victorian eye and side-by-side statues of Saint Francis of Assisi and Sigmund Freud.
“The patron saint of writing,” Ms. Abbott said. “Dr. Freud.”