Dare Me is billed by its publisher as a Fight Club for girls, but calling them ”girls” might be underestimating the binge-drinking, lunch-vomiting, social-climbing queen bees in this dark high school thriller. Megan Abbott’s young heroines are cheerleaders, but they’re really more like teenage gladiators. Sadistic squad captain Beth Cassidy keeps a photo of a Japanese bomber pilot taped to her locker. Addy Hanlon brags that she is Beth’s ”fidus Achates,” which basically means she holds back Beth’s hair when she throws up. When a new coach shows up and boots Beth off the top of the pyramid, Addy’s caught between her best frenemy and this enticing older woman, who opens Addy’s eyes to the adult world of sex, extreme juice-cleanse diets, and cutthroat ambition. Coach (as she’s called) seems to be the ruthless leader Addy’s always dreamed of following — that is, until someone ends up dead, and Addy starts to wonder if she can be just as ruthless herself.
Having won an Edgar for her 1940s-era femme fatale novel Queenpin, Abbott knows how to write a hard-boiled classic in the vein of Raymond Chandler. But what’s exciting about Dare Me is how it makes that traditionally masculine genre feel distinctly female. It feels groundbreaking when Abbott takes noir conventions — loss of innocence, paranoia, the manipulative sexuality of newly independent women — and suggests that they’re rooted in high school, deep in the hearts of all-American girls. She understands the intensity of female relationships, and she knows that some 15-year-olds can’t be best friends until they’re willing to destroy the competition. ”There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” says Coach at the beginning of Dare Me. She has no idea how right she is. A-