Feminist Noir: Does it exist?

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One of the difficulties with writing the mystery novel you’ve always wanted to write, which happens to be in the noir-ish vain, is being a feminist.

Yes, I said the f-word. And yes, I know about the I’m not a feminist because movement. (Eyeroll. Don’t get me started.)

Here’s a couple of “rules” of noir. There are two types of dames in these kind of stories:

  • The femme fatal
  • The good girl

That’s it. And there’s usually a detective who is doing questionable things or is questionable himself. Note I said himself. For the most part the lead detective, a term used for the person solving the case, is a man. The good girl is too good to take seriously and the femme fatal or damsel in distress is luring the detective away from some moral good or some goal he has for the case. Quite often, this chick is the key to solving the puzzle.

The dames. They’re bad news either way.

Then, as a feminist, why do I love reading this kind of fiction? The answer: how could I not?! Everything is heightened in a noir story. The theme of good vs bad, dark vs light. The dialogue is smart, witty, and sharp. The writing is usually crisp and fun to read.  I love noir, however, as a feminist they’re have been several eyerolls.

Then here’s the big question: does feminist noir exist? And can I write it?

As much as I’d like to say that I have stumbled onto something new in the genre world, I haven’t. A quick Google search gave me several blog posts and websites about female noir, noir where the main character and/or the person solve the case was a woman. Here’s a really good one that had my attention.  Here’s another one with some great examples. 

The thing with tropes, especially with noir, is that they work. After studying Raymond Chandler, the godfather of noir, and the letters and essays he’s written about the hardboiled detective story, I know that there is a formula to it. It works because it allows people to read/consider/imagine the dark underbelly of the human condition, where the good are really good, almost saintly, and the bad are so bad it’s tragic.  This only works if there are extremes with the characterization. There’s no middle of the road here, it’s black or white.

I’m wrong, there is some gray. That’s the lead character, the detective, the crime solver. They are filled with darkness and light, and both are at war within the character. For example, the detective would never knowingly commit murder unless it was by accident or justifiable (to their moral code). The detective is a flawed hero with the emphasis on either flawed or hero. While the character can switch from flawed or hero within a second, those two attributes never occupy the same space at the same time.

Imagine if this flawed hero were a woman?

We’re seeing some of this happening in modern novels and films. The Millennium Trilogy (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a prime example. The Fall (available on Netflix) easily comes to mind as a noir-ish television series with a female detective. But do these characters, can these characters, compete with Sam Spade (Dashiell Hammett) or Phillip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler)? Can mine?

Or should they compete at all?

I think female noir is still defining itself, or, more accurately, deciding whether it wants to define itself at all. I believe that noir as a literary genre is now an open session for discovery and that the what defined it in the past, what became its roots, is also what is changing it.  Because of this feminist noir or female noir can and does exist next to the more traditional offerings.

Meanwhile, I can’t resist writing about femme fatals and gritty detectives with a thirst for justice. Question is, can you guess which one is wearing the heels?

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