By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published as the introduction to Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, Edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
In the old days, all werewolves were male.
Is there a distinctive female noir? Is there, as some have argued, a distinctive female voice, differing essentially from the male voice? Neuroanatomists have revealed that the female and male brains of Homo sapiens differ significantly, though not in ways that clearly pinpoint distinctive behavior, and without reference to superior intelligence, talent, or traits of personality. In other words, there are neuroanatomical differences in female and male beings, as there are obvious physiological differences between the sexes, but these differences are modulated by countless other factors—genetic inheritance, familial upbringing, education, culture, environment.
It has been noted that noir isn’t a specific subject matter but rather a sort of (dark) music: a sensibility, a tone, an atmosphere. The stark, stoic melancholy of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Solitary, shadowed objects in the paintings of de Chirico. Not the bland, flat surfaces of sunshine but the tonal drama of chiaroscuro. The music of Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Nina Simone. Miles Davis’s soundtrack for the French film Elevator to the Gallows. Dark eroticism of the poetry of Sylvia Plath fusing desire, sexual rage, unspeakable longing. “Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights” (Wallace Stevens). The very titles Touch of Evil; Farewell, My Lovely; A Kiss Before Dying; “Kiss Me Again, Stranger.” Not so much pessimistic as starkly realist, free of romantic illusion, expecting the less benign, resigned to the worst. Noir is a populist sort of tragic vision, making of a man’s infatuation with a woman, in traditional noir, something richly ironic, and often lethal—not profound, as in classic tragedy, but a confirmation of the way the (actual) world is: deceptive, punishing. Noir is frequently, though not inevitably, romantic/sexual disillusion, fury. The dying words of Hemingway’s Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not are sheer noir, despair raised to the level of wisdom: “. . . a man alone ain’t got no bloody chance.”
As for a woman alone, Hemingway is silent. In noir, women’s place until fairly recently has been limited to two: muse, sexual object. As Edgar Allan Poe noted, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
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Honoré de Balzac remarked that behind every great fortune there is a crime. Certainly, behind most great works of literature there is a crime, or crimes—the rich, fecund soil in which noir flourishes. In our present-day American republic, in an era of scarcely concealed public corruption and unrepentant scandal, noir seems to have spread like minuscule drops of anthrax in a reservoir.
What is distinctive about female noir isn’t likely to be an identifiable prose style, nor even a prevailing sensibility, but rather perspective: where the noir tradition in American fiction and films has been predominantly male, our perspective has been male-directed; in female noir, we are allowed to see, with a good deal of individual variation, from the point of view of the female observer, actor, agent. Suddenly, the male becomes the object of the protagonist’s gaze, which happens to be female. (Though some female observers in Cutting Edge apprehend female from the perspective of the lesbian gaze, as in Aimee Bender’s homage to Raymond Chandler/LA noir in her teasingly erotic “Firetown.” In Jennifer Morales’s “The Boy without a Bike,” the lesbian perspective, which doesn’t shy away from a confrontation with [male] physical violence, comes to include the tenderly maternal and protective as well.)
What has long been an accepted cultural phenomenon, as embedded in the natural order of things as the physical body itself, is revealed by the female gaze as culturally determined, and therefore mutable. It’s true, the great works of American noir have primarily been by men—from Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, to such film classics as Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, They Drive By Night, They Live By Night, Laura, Vertigo, and countless more, encoding the femme fatale as the driving force of evil; even works of mystery and detection by women writers (Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell) continued the tradition of the brilliant (if flawed) male detective. Angela Carter’s radical interpretation of the fairy tale, The Bloody Chamber (1979), marked a dramatic turn in literary fiction, in Carter’s ecstatic celebration of the very evil of the female, where once such energies had been the unique property of the male. Though there had been evil female characters previously in literature, from murderous Medea and Clytemnestra to savage Goneril and Regan and (more recently) insufferable little Rhoda Penmark of William March’s The Bad Seed and the more piteous psycho-murderer Merricat Blackwood of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it is in the second half of the twentieth century, with the rise of feminism, that the female vision, in its appropriation of the energies of male evil, is in itself celebrated.
As the inscrutable narrator of Valerie Martin’s “Il Grifone” boasts: “Murder is my métier . . . I made my living spinning plots.”
If the werewolf has been a cultural archetype embodying man’s animal nature in its most obvious, literal manifestation, it is also the case that, until recent times, as Margaret Atwood observes in her poem “Update on Werewolves,” the werewolf was perceived to be an exaggeration of maleness. To be female was to be “feminine”—passively vulnerable to harassment and victimization by men; “femininity” could not be equated with a murderous animal nature. (By literary tradition, vampires could be either male or female: Count Dracula is the vampire patriarch, but he has several vampire-wives who are eager to do his bidding and infect men with the vampire curse; Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which in fact predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-six years, introduces a highly erotic, seductive female/lesbian vampire who never repents her evil behavior.)
Gender divisions in art are futile to debate, though there is a common-sense likelihood that subject matter is often more clearly aligned with one sex than the other, if one acknowledges the binary nature of sex. (In our time, in some quarters, biological identity at birth is no longer considered permanently binding: one can “transcend” one’s birthright.) Childbirth, nursing, the travails and ecstasies of inhabiting a female body, experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, exploitation—these are likely to be female subjects, of course; yet, the great American photographer Margaret Bourke-White ventured into such pits of horror as the Buchenwald concentration camp to take photographs for Life at the end of World War II, an assignment that few male photographers might have been capable of undertaking; and the contemporary Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, in his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, tracks the domestic life of a father with young children in its exhaustive domestic particularities as few women/mothers would have the patience to do. These extremes may be anomalies but they certainly challenge the conventional patriarchal wisdom that “anatomy is destiny”—still more, that “a woman’s place is in the home”—or Robert Graves’s churlish remark, “. . . woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing.”
It is a curiosity that “mystery” is usually associated with crime, and crime invariably with murder, when in fact mysteries abound in our lives that may have nothing to do with crime, nor even with physical distress. So, too, noir may be about subjects other than crime; yet in literature and film it is invariably associated with crimes, usually murder; in classic noir, the crime (murder) springs from a male protagonist having been tangled in a web spun by a femme fatale, herself heartless. The femme fatale inspires desire in the male but is herself immune to such weakness, which makes her a monstrous being, usually in proximity to a “good” woman—Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, the brazen platinum-blond beauty in contrast to the unspectacular young wife played by brunette Jean Peters; Kim Novak in Vertigo, a platinum-blond enigma in contrast to the plain, mousy “good girl” artist played by Barbara Bel Geddes. It’s significant that the Hollywood noir film that most realistically (and sympathetically) explores the consequence of sexual violence against women is Ida Lupino’s Outrage, a portrait of a young woman rape victim in which there isn’t the slightest suggestion of blaming the victim or suggesting any sort of complicity with the rapist. Outrage evokes genuine terror as the victim is stalked by her rapist in a German expressionist cityscape which traps her as in a maze, and explores with remarkable subtlety and candor the struggle of the young woman to regain autonomy over her shattered personality. Here is a noir film in which the female protagonist emerges as the heroine of her own life—a film so far ahead of its time, it remains relatively unknown to this day.
More frequently, films in which women are sexual victims have been carefully contrived revenge dramas in which a heroic male protagonist, likely to be a husband or lover, reverts to vigilante justice after a girl or a woman has suffered violence; the female is the narrative pretext for the male struggle with another male, or males, for dominance. From The Searchers to Death Wish, from Straw Dogs to Memento, this cinematic category is inexhaustible, and contains much that is excellent as well as much that is cheaply exploitative. What the revenge films have in common is the enraged male perspective, which justifies whatever violence is unleashed.
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The particular strength of the female noir vision isn’t a recognizable style but rather a defiantly female, indeed feminist, perspective. Cutting Edge brings together a considerable range of twenty-first-century female voices, from sociological realism (Cha) to Grand Guignol surrealism (Oates); from erotic playfulness (Bender) to dark fairy-tale determinism (Khaw). Here is a brilliantly deadpan graphic story by Lisa Lim, and here are brilliantly executed poems by Margaret Atwood. Artwork by Laurel Hausler is striking and original, sinister and triumphant; Noir Dame (on the front cover) is the perfect image of a mysterious beauty, far more than merely skin-deep, and essentially unknowable.
As one might expect, a number of these stories wreak vengeance upon the opposite sex. The adolescent protagonist of S.A. Solomon’s “Impala” is a victim of sexual abuse by a high school boyfriend/gang leader from whom she must flee to save her life; in a narrative of steadily mounting suspense, she confronts the prospect of further violence from a stranger encountered on her runaway flight. The mystery-writer protagonist of Valerie Martin’s “Il Grifone” is threatened by a brute (“Half eagle, half lion; on the ground, in the air, all predator, all the time”) whom other men, including her husband, can’t seem to take seriously, even as the reader identifies strongly with her predicament, and thrills to the ingenious way she eludes what might have been a sordid fate: “I’m much less likely to commit a crime because I’ve thought about all the ways it can go wrong . . .” Martin is particularly adroit at presenting the maddening complicity of men with men—the assumption that a threatened woman is imagining things, even on the part of “sympathetic” men.
In the structurally inventive “A History of the World in Five Objects,” S.J. Rozan tracks the ritualistic behavior of a woman who has survived a traumatizing childhood only to be confronted with the ruins of her personality as an adult. In an artful variation on the theme of revenge, Steph Cha’s “Thief” dramatizes a domestic, familial quandary in which tragic loss and betrayal yield to a kind of forgiveness; of necessity, an older generation yields to a younger, for whom life in Koreatown is fraught with more danger than the narrowly virtuous law-abiding elders can imagine.
“Death always made her hungry” is the heart of Lisa Lim’s deftly narrated graphic tale “The Hunger”—a thoroughly unrepentant revenge against another sort of enemy, one within the family. Lucy Taylor’s conversational, confiding “Too Many Lunatics” and Livia Llewellyn’s coolly narrated “One of These Nights” present deceptively reasonable, ostensibly sympathetic female characters who are revealed as more complex than the reader has suspected: in “Too Many Lunatics,” a half sister is determined to save her addict-sister from harm, with unanticipated consequences for both of them; in “One of These Nights,” the sinister alliance between two teenage girls and the father of one of them is only gradually revealed, with unanticipated consequences for a third girl. Edwidge Danticat’s “Please Translate” is a small masterpiece of suspense that has its roots in the classic noir situation in which a woman and a man are locked in mortal combat over the (literal) body of their child, a hostage to adult infidelity and selfishness; in “The Boy without a Bike,” a concerned woman dares to monitor the behavior of a possibly abusive father, imperiling herself even as she exacts revenge upon him.
In Elizabeth McCracken’s mysterious tall tale, “An Early Specimen,” set in an idiosyncratic taxidermy and waxworks museum in Florence, a chronically dissatisfied tourist, an American woman, makes a startling discovery—in fact, two discoveries; her story ends as mysteriously as it begins, as we are left with the haunting query the woman has posed to herself—“How would you like to die?” Playful, too, though fueled by a scathing satiric vision, Bernice L. McFadden’s “OBF, Inc.” portrays a society so thoroughly imbued with racism that an ingenious entrepreneur has commercialized it as public-relations damage control. Here is an insidious political noir in which the targets of racism can profit from it, if they are willing to sell their souls to be identified as the “one black friend” of racist clients: “We live in America, this is a capitalist country, and we monetize everything. Everything.”
In the third year of the Trump administration, very little in McFadden’s American dystopia is far-fetched.
Aimee Bender’s lyrically narrated “Firetown” shimmers in a Los Angeles heat wave as a female private investigator becomes involved with a glamorous wealthy client whose husband (and cat) are missing; wife, husband, husband’s secretary, and the female “private dick” become caught up in a complicated erotic conflagration, with a wonderfully ambiguous ending.
Similarly, in “Miss Martin,” Sheila Kohler’s portrayal of a daughter victimized by a charming predator-father is given an inspired turn by the intervention of a unique female presence, a kind of Mary Poppins dispenser of justice—“the perfect secretary, remembers everything, but is utterly discreet, always there when you need her; never there when you don’t.”
Margaret Atwood, creator of the iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as more recent environmentally engaged works of fiction (the MaddAddam trilogy, The Heart Goes Last), began her career as a poet in the 1960s, in Ontario, Canada; these tersely witty, savagely comic poems are critiques of both patriarchal culture and the strategies of survival by which women accommodate themselves to it in a (seemingly) postfeminist era in which “Everything’s suddenly clearer, though also more obscure.” In the twenty-first century, women’s self-empowerment is in danger of becoming merely gestural, stylized and appropriated without being truly realized, as in fantasies of female autonomy that dissipate in real life when they return to “middle-management black and Jimmy Choos.” The poet has no illusions about her role in a world of “moon phases fading to blackout”—“cursed if she smiles or cries.” Cassandra Khaw’s “Mothers, We Dream” is a captivating tale of seductive sea creatures that claim human husbands, which unfolds like a dream, as in the darkest of fairy tales; only belatedly does the husband think “to ask his wife what she was . . .”
Last in the collection, my own story “Assassin” is, like Khaw’s, a surrealist excursion into the dark places of the (female) heart. An outspoken woman, a woman no longer concerned in the slightest with presenting herself as attractive to anyone, of any gender, realizes that her redemption will be through an act of assassination, in a cause she perceives to be worthy of self-sacrifice: decapitation of a powerful (male) politician. Taking possession of the severed head, the assassin is (re)possessing her own dignity: “I am thinking, and when I am finished thinking I will know more clearly what to do, and I am not taking bloody orders from you, my man, or from any man ever again.”
As in a choral affirmation of female autonomy, female self-identification, and female self-possession, the voices of Cutting Edge concur.
Joyce Carol Oates
Image: “Closet” by Laurel Hausler