This article was first published onLiterature Lust
A cynical protagonist, the seedy side of cities, a crime, corruption, and a femme fatale, all wrapped up in an air of moral ambiguity - Most of us can spot noir in film and fiction when we see it.
Usually, there’s a hardboiled hero, a detective who’s lost his faith in life; yeah, he’s been around the block a few times.
In traditional noir fiction, which transpired in the bleak and battered years of post-WWII, this hero has returned from the horrors of the trenches only to be confronted by the cruelty and corruption of the large and ever-lonely metropolis in which he now toils.
Everyone’s his enemy, or certainly worthy of suspicion. Particularly the women.
The Demonizing Portrayal of Women in Feminist Noir
The demonizing portrayal of women in noir as dark-hearted manipulators resulted from the fact they had proved themselves capable once their men shipped out for war.
Now, back home, the men felt useless, lost, and bitter, and who better than women, the usurpers of life’s meaning, to bear the brunt of this anxiety?
A Place for Feminists in Noir Fiction?
It’s hard to imagine, then, that there’s a place for feminists in noir fiction’s hyper-masculine world. Yet it’s exactly because women in noir are either pawns, victims or representatives of male distrust and disgust that the feminist noir sub-genre has been able to flourish.
Many women writers find that they can use it to critically examine power imbalances, gendered violence, and the societal expectations placed on them as the “second sex”.
In stories situated in the dark, dangerous worlds of noir, they can delve into the complexities of gender dynamics and offer nuanced insight into how women navigate and resist patriarchal systems.
It’s this exploration that sets feminist noir fiction apart from other categories of the genre. Whether Western noir (think Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men) or the popular Nordic noir of a grim and icy Scandinavia, all noir genres share the common elements of sleazy settings and men and women with dubious intentions no matter the side of the law they’re on.
However, feminist noir uses these traditional tropes and archetypes specifically to subvert them. Roles are reversed and power ranks are disrupted with novels that feature female P.I.s and femme fatales who give a damn.
Women’s stories are placed at the centre of the narrative with the women themselves shown to be complex, multidimensional characters, not simply jezebels or sitting targets.
Stepping out of the supporting role, it’s these female experiences, struggles, and agency that finally fill the spotlight.
Intersectionality in Feminist Noir
Additionally, feminist noir frequently incorporates intersectional perspectives, acknowledging the ways in which gender intersects with other identities such as race, class, and sexuality. Books such as Dorothy B. Hughes's The Expendable Man or Megan Abbott’s Queen Pin, probe how these intersecting identities shape the experiences and challenges faced by women and in doing so, provide a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of oppression and resistance.
But feminist noir fictionis not some academic exercise. Rather, it’s as thrilling and engaging as any other dark crime caper.
And if you’re curious to chew over some stories where the most frequent thing naked is the city and blondes don’t see the need to smile in a way that men feel in their hip pocket, then you have to start with these five feminist noir fiction classics.
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947)
No reader of feminist noir fiction – or noir literature itself - can overlook Dorothy B. Hughes. A contemporary of 1940s crime writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she was greatly admired by both.
Hughes wrote smart, elegant and deeply unsettling noir stories that delve into power dynamics (of race as well as gender) and often critique unchecked male dominance and toxic masculinity – In a Lonely Place is a masterful example of both.
Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, the story follows Dix Steele, a troubled and volatile ex-serviceman.
Jobless and living beyond his means, Dix is supposedly writing a crime novel. This solitary profession gives him an excuse to stalk the midnight streets of the city he’s returned to.
But when he reconnects with Brub, an old war buddy who’s now a police detective trying to track down a serial killer, meets Brub’s wife Sylvia, and finds himself falling for Laurel Grey, a gorgeous redhead living in his apartment block, things start to get complicated.
This sinister and psychologically rich novel was made into an equally superb cult movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. But the film doesn’t follow the book’s trajectory, which, with its stark themes of male rage and paranoia is a deeper, darker treat for readers who like a walk on the dark side.
Queenpin by Megan Abbott (2007)
If Dorothy B. Hughes was the first master of feminist noir, then Megan Abbott is easily her successor.
Much of Abbott’s work delves into the intense relationships among young women and the pressures they face in navigating the expectations of those around them.
But Abbott’s strength is in the sly way she subverts this narrative in her presentation of women who, by proudly exhibiting ambition and agency, offer up a sharp exploration of female power dynamics.
Queenpin is such a novel. Set in a mid-20th-century crime underworld, it’s a clever, fun and fast-paced coming-of-age story about a young woman who finds herself plucked from obscurity to become the protegee of a powerful female crime boss.
Yet as the eager unnamed narrator begins to rise under the tough guidance of the Queenpin of the title, her hunger for the high life rises in tandem.
Soon, passion, lies and misplaced loyalty start to tear a rift between the teacher and her student, and as one bad decision after another spins out of control, the story speeds towards its fantastically brutal and inevitable finish.
Laura by Vera Caspary (1943)
The body of a beautiful, independent, career woman, Laura Hunt, is found in her New York apartment having been shot in the face, and so begins Vera Caspary’s atmospheric noir novel, Laura.
Caspary uses an innovative narrative structure around which to weave her sinister and twisted plot, and it works brilliantly to drive the story’s suspense and shocks.
Like Du Maurier’s Rebecca or Elizabeth von Armin’s Vera, Laura’s character is served up to us through the unreliable opinions of the men who purport to have known her best. This includes the detective assigned to solve her murder who finds himself falling for his version of the dead girl.
As such, the tale becomes an ingenious exploration of the need for men to control the identity of the women they desire, and the fight for agency that women have to face daily in a world where all they want to do is make it on their own.
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Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (2011)
City of the Dead is the first in Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt series. The novel introduces us to the hard-nosed, smart-as-a-whip, P.I. who returns home to post-Katrina New Orleans to take on a missing persons case.
DeWitt is no ordinary gumshoe. Whether consulting the I Ching or hoovering up hallucinogenics, nothing’s left off the table if it’ll help her get her guy.
As such, she doesn’t conform to the classic femme fatale or naïve girl-next-door type of noir-themed novels. Rather, she proves she can hold her own in a male-dominated field with skill and confidence in her own abilities – no matter how wacko they might seem.
But what makes Gran’s P.I., and the novel overall, so fresh and original, is the deep dive into DeWitt’s personal history and past struggles. What we get is a greater insight into why she is the way she is and the impact of her experiences as a woman.
Deeply flawed and vulnerable, these complexities thus reflect a more realistic and nuanced portrayal of a woman that we’re much less used to in the mean streets of noir detective fiction.
Out by Natsuo Kirino (2003)
Kirino’s dark and daring novel about four working-class women at a Tokyo bento-box factory who become embroiled in a murder plot, is a modern-day classic, even if it is hard on the stomach at times.
In her exploration of the consequences of violence against women and how some women may resort to drastic measures to protect themselves or seek revenge, Kirino doesn’t hold back.
And why should she? The reality of violence is not pretty. Nor is the reality of the lives of so many working-class women like those in Out, who find themselves overlooked and under-appreciated by their families and society at large.
Out is unflinchingly gruesome and grim in parts. But the power of female friendships is as integral to this superb plot as is the expression of female rage. The four women at the centre of the story form a tight-knit group, supporting not just their ability to commit the unimaginable, but their desire to rise above the unacceptable.
These rich female relationships, along with themes of economic empowerment and violence against women, make this dark and disturbing novel a captivating example of feminist noir fiction.