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  1. R
    R July 31, 2009 at 5:29 am |

    This is a really interesting post but I have to disagree with you a little regarding your assertion that “The Noir world has very strict rules”. It is true that there is a tendency toward certain representations but there are many exceptions. My knowledge lies more in film than in fiction but a notable example would be Nora in The Thin Man. She is neither femme fatale nor virginal. There is actually more diversity in the genre than is usually claimed. Lots of noir produced by men critiques patriarchy and deconstructs masculinity as well as providing interesting female characters.

    I think the trouble with gender in noir and hard-boiled fiction is less to do with who is writing it (you have shown this above) and more to do with which stories we choose to label as “typical noir” or rate highly. Who gets to decide on what constitutes a classic is a result of power (and we know who holds it). This means inevitably that the most conformist masculine stories are valued above others, and that male authors will be valued above female in these genres. It doesn’t mean that feminist friendly stories don’t exist.

  2. Ellid
    Ellid July 31, 2009 at 6:13 am |

    I think this is a vast oversimplification about the mystery genre. There were rational, non-intuitive female detectives as far back as Loveday Brooke and Lady Molly at the turn of the last century, and plenty of hard-boiled female detectives like Vic Warshawski, Honey West, and Eve Dallas. Maybe Chandler wrote femmes fatale, but Dashiell Hammett created Nora Charles.

  3. Ellid
    Ellid July 31, 2009 at 6:22 am |

    One more thing…Gaudy Night is perhaps the most feminist book in the entire detective canon. Using it as an example of the female detective being devalued is twisting the text for talking points, especially since the *characters* never do so. The whole book is about the value of female education, the necessity for women maintaining their intellectual integrity, and the problem of how to formulate a relationship of equals in a sexist society. Peter never once believes that Harriet is relying on intuition rather than intellect, and is amazingly non-condescending.

  4. Visan
    Visan July 31, 2009 at 9:05 am |

    Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You and Queenpin are 2 books that flip the script on traditional noir. With Queenpin, having the unnamed protagonist ruled by her libido and her lover’s bed prowess, was a good twist. And it rang true to life, with some women doing whatever for hot sex. Also, Megan Abbott touched on racial disparity in The Song Is You, with the Iolene character. Ms. Abbott is quite adroit at handling social issues without her works coming across as pendantic. Cool!

  5. Roy Kay
    Roy Kay July 31, 2009 at 9:48 am |

    I don’t know. “Gaudy Night” was interesting, but it seemed to criticize women adopting “male” values and becoming “unfeeling”. (Admittely, I am going by the series presentation, here.) Harriet Vane was a good character, though, and didn’t shrink from confronting the facts and realities of a situation – most notably in “Having His Carcase” (sp?), where she insists that any rational list of suspects would include herself.

    Vic Warshawski (movie, again) was pretty true to the genre – even down to the getting beat up as a message to get off the case. (I’m glad this was made in the 80s(?) before “rape chic”, as in CIS, determined that she would have had to have been raped to move the plot along.) She was persistent and unintimidatible. I would have liked to have seen another in the series.

    The thing that does make the genre work, and is often overlooked, is the thinking and pulling together of threads that’s involved. Intuition plays a part, but so does logic – there is usually a red herring in there that needs to be ruled out. This is all part of the messiness and why it isn’t, for example, melodrama.

    That messiness does make it a challenge to write women’s characters. We are real used to “messed up” women with tragic pasts, but not so used to “messy” women who have complex experiences that might have shaped them; say cracking a case through blackmail, but then being haunted when the blackmailed person commits suicide, and kind of looking for a way to right the score as a subplot.

  6. Nick Charles
    Nick Charles July 31, 2009 at 10:36 am |

    A contemporary novel (albeit set in 1950) that offers a great female perspective is Dope by Sara Gran. This book really tears into the ancient archetypes of good and evil–the question it seems to ask (subtly) is, how can anyone be good all the time in a horrible world where no one can be trusted? The protagonist, Josephine “Joe” Flannigan, is a petty thief and recovering heroine addict who gets hired to find a missing young woman, and the seedy New York underworld she journeys through is largely dominated by impoverished addicts and the desperate things they do to get the next fix. It has a few amteurish slips on the author’s part, and Joe is (intentionally, I think) a sloppy detective despite her unbending toughness and street smarts, but nothing about her weak points is gendered–yes, she has a soul and caring about other people trips her up, but Gran does a good job of making the reader connect empathically with Joe.

  7. Elizabeth Anne
    Elizabeth Anne July 31, 2009 at 11:35 am |

    Lindsay Davis. Her books are set in ancient Rome (under Vespasian) but distinctly noir. The main character’s wife is an woman born to the Senatorial class, so her ability to ferret things out is based not on her feminine wiles but her awareness of a) the clout her class gives her and b) the expectations her gender and class set up. (Senatorial women are supposed to be airheaded sots.) By managing to subvert and manipulate both, she really ends up playing with the genre a bit.

  8. Persia
    Persia July 31, 2009 at 11:57 am |

    The Thin Man isn’t noir, though. I think most ‘classic’ noir does fall into dames-and-tough guy patterns.

    I just read The Black Dahlia, a neo-noir by James Ellroy, and one of the interesting things about my (later) edition was a concluding essay by the author, where he felt like he’d been too tough and not understanding enough of his female characters. It was really interesting and I’d encourage anyone who likes noir to check it out. (And to check Ellroy out, he’s wonderful.)

  9. Rockit
    Rockit July 31, 2009 at 7:45 pm |

    I’d like to put in a mention for one of my all-time favourites, Jim Thompson too. Sure, his stories tended to be from the opposite point of view – the amoral anti-hero who was smarter than the rest but who always seemed to get caught in the web he tangled – but the female characters never seemed to fall into the realm of stereotypes and they usually had, if not always rational, eminently understandable and human motivatons.

    Plus in terms of economy, his best stuff’s up there with the cream of 20th century writing. The second chapter of The Grifters alone is six pages long, and it’s an absolute masterclass in short form characterisation.

  10. Maria
    Maria August 1, 2009 at 7:50 am |

    I think this discusion is not complete without mentioning Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, as far from ingenue as from femme fatale: an old lady who tends to think logically and to think the worst of everyone. And who plays with stereotypes, posing as innofensive, frail, and a terrible gossip. She is part of the canon since 1930. And the author used to love her as much as she hated Poirot.

    Although noir genre writers were mostly male, and in general wrote the stereotypical female characters, mistery novels are totally different; in my opinion because most of the good authors are women: think of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhoney, or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, as unstereotypycal as females as they are (sometimes) stereotypical as detectives.

    Another female character that I love (Huge in all Europe right now), is Lisbeth Salander, by Stieg Larsson, a feminist man (judging him by his work) if there ever was one.

  11. Josh Jasper
    Josh Jasper August 1, 2009 at 9:26 am |

    I really have to quibble with the “money hungry” part of your characterization. The noir detective is always cynical, but money hungry? Nope. Down on his luck, and in *need* of money, for certain. But not greedy, just struggling to get by. He often never gets paid at all, or takes on cases for free.

    The standard trope is that the detective is very shortly going to get kicked out of his office for not paying rent, and a beautiful woman who’s not who she seems comes by and offers him a job that’s not what it seems. That’s the classic noir story start.

  12. Sophia
    Sophia August 1, 2009 at 11:13 am |

    Running a s/hand bookshop, its always great when you can recommend authors that you like that are somewhat overlooked. Mary Wings only got limited print runs in europe, mainly ‘women’s press’. She writes classic noir, updated to the 80′s and 90′s, with a strong lesbian detective, mixing a surprising degree of eroticism with interesting subversions of the genre. An honourable mention to
    Glen Cook’s ‘Garrett PI’ series. Of course if we can count cyber-punk…

  13. Morgan Page
    Morgan Page August 1, 2009 at 1:33 pm |

    Christa Faust’s Money Shot is my favourite example of Noir, and especially female-written Noir. It’s bloody brilliant. Not only that, but the tough-as-nails sex worker main character, I feel, breaks through the stereotype of the sex-worker-as-victim so prevalent in Noir.

    ~Morgan

  14. NickS
    NickS August 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm |

    in female noir, [the femme fatale] is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive,

    For what it’s worth this was very much my understanding of the Femme Fatale in The Maltese Falcon movie.

    One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the final showdown with Spade, Gutman (with his thugs), and O’Shaughnessy and the realization that O’Shaughnessy is probably the most powerful and dangerous person in the room.

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