Monday 12 June 2017

Recommend: women in noir/crime

Noir is a genre of fiction too often plagued with sexist stereotypes. If you are tired of plots where women characters are either manipulative femmes fatales or naive girls in need of protection, and you would like to read a good crime story without rolling your eyes every other page… maybe this month’s recommendations can be of some help! TFF authors, editors and reviewers have shared quite different examples: from more traditional noir to contamination with other genres; from novels to comics; from the darkest stories for adult readers to humorous YA series. Feel free to join us in compiling this list, adding in the comments all the noir stories with women and/or by women that you have read and enjoyed! Mainstream or obscure, we want them all!

Petra Kuppers (website)

My choice of noir is Gail Simone’s graphic novel with illustrators Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter, Clean Room: Immaculate Conception (DC Comics, 2016). It’s got all the ingredients of a good noir: a besieged and heart-wounded hero (journalist Chloe Pierce), a scintillating set of beautifully realized locations (scenes are set in Germany, Norway, various points in the US), and an equally wounded and enigmatic femme fatale (Astrid Mueller, head of a cult-like organization). Members of Astrid’s organization visit the clean room, where they face their fears. They might end up killing themselves, as Chloe’s fiancee did, or, later in the story, a Hollywood action hero. Add to that mix intriguing monsters, skin gore, torture and self-mutilation, lots of nudity and sex, and more twists and turns than one can shake a stick at. The psychological tension runs high and makes this a brilliant read, with two powerful women leads, one black, one white, none of whom need rescuing, although both have an intriguing bunch of henchpeople (including a group in Chloe’s camp that reminds me of Mulder’s nerds in the X Files). Queer narratives complicate the story, releasing us from scenarios where there is only ever one ‘other.’

Valeria Vitale (TFF, blog)

The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith is a story that shows all the landmarks of the noir genre: a hardened former police officer, a corrupt aristocracy that flirts with criminal organisations, shady middlemen that love money too much, a fascinating client that are bound to bring troubles, and a city, Atlanta, that is, as in many noir, a crucial component of the plot. At the same time, Griffith’s novel eludes easy categorizations and keeps surprising the reader, choosing unexpected turns, changing pace and focus. What makes this story so interesting to me is not (only) that most of the main characters are women, but that this scenario is not treated as something exceptional: the novel unravels smoothly without anyone being disconcerted by the fact that, yes, women can be dark and dangerous too and, yes, they also make very good detectives.

The Blue Place portrays a number of relationships between women that are beautifully diverse and complex, and feed the plot without falling into stereotypes or being used as simple triggers: flirt and courtship, romantic involvement, friendship, solidarity, family bonds. They all feel real and profoundly human and make this story exceptionally engaging.

Cait Coker (TFF)

Jacqueline Carey's novels Santa Olivia (2009) and Saints Astray (2011) are unlikely to be read as noir, but I would argue that they are closer to that genre than to conventional dystopia, as noir is characterized through its ethical ambiguity and fatalism, and dystopia through omnipresent degradation. In Carey's world, there is a valid escape to be had from the shitty not-too-distant future southwest US, where a queer Hispanic teen named Loup is torn between revenge for her dead brother and escaping to a better life for herself and her girlfriend Pilar. The outer world, including Mexico and Europe, has rebounded after a devastating pandemic in a way that the isolationist US has not. Loup's and Pilar's journey evolves beyond a quest for survival to one of discovery of this outside world, from tourist beaches to fashion and pop music.

Their saga concludes with their search for social justice for their home, still under martial law, and for equal rights for genetically modified humans, both of which are impeded by the complex oligarchy of the US government and military, as in this case being born, for Loup, is a crime of itself.

Jessica Campbell (web page)

Robin Stevens’s ongoing book series Murder Most Unladylike is one of those things that’s tailor-made for those of us who like the aesthetics of classic English fiction but also like progressive politics (see also Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). The books, intended for children and teens but very readable for adults, feature Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells, budding detectives at a girls’ boarding school in 1930s England. Daisy comes from the British gentry, while Hazel is from Hong Kong; they become friends and form their own detective society. The mysteries are interesting, and they frequently evoke the likes of Agatha Christie with titles like Arsenic for Tea and settings like a manor house and the Orient Express. Hazel’s first-person narration subtly invites readers into her experience as an Asian girl in a very Caucasian society. Then there’s her experience as a smart but quiet person who has to learn to assert herself with the brash Daisy. These are good things for kids to read about, and Stevens’s prose is never didactic. I was encouraged to read these books by a friend and her middle-school-aged son – and I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint which of them encouraged them more strongly!

Please let us know in the comments your favorite women in noir and crime—you'll be adding to my reading list!


Djibril said...

Valeria: all three of Nicola Griffith's Aud Torvingen novels are brilliant crime thrillers—beautiful, chilling, horrifying, never easy to read (which makes them perfect noir). Cait: I hadn't realized until I saw your comment that there was a sequel to Santa Oliva out there. ::buys::

For classic noir, both of the fictionalized/semiautobiographical crime novels by Gypsy Rose Lee are surprisingly good reads (if you can get over an artist having chosen an ethnic slur as her stage name). Contemporary London-based thrillers by Gillian Slovo are also very readable, and overtly feminist (I've only read Ten Days in Summer and Morbid Symptoms so far). I've not been able to get into any of the Natsuo Kirino I've tried so far—has anyone else? What would you recommend to start off with? I liked Megan Abbott's Queenpin very much, but her The Song Is You didn't do it for me at all (story about abuse of women with a male protagonist who thinks he's a nice guy. Very cleverly done, but not fun to read). Ausma Zehanat Khan's The Unquiet Dead is the most painful detective novel I've read since Lynda La Plante. I'm equal parts eager and nervous to read the next few in the series. ::shudders::

Valeria Vitale said...

Thank you! Yes, I am definitely planning to read all Griffith's trilogy. But, like all best noir, The Blue Place left me with a bit of a "punch in the stomach" feeling, so I might wait a little bit before reading the sequels :-)

The Unquiet Dead was already on mt radar, very glad to know that it is as good as I was hoping. I am not familiar with the other titles you recommend, can't wait to check them out!

Jodie said...

We Go Around in the Night & Are Consumed by Fire by Jules Grant is a great novel about an all-female gang with a really distinctive voice (warning the plot hinges on the death of a lesbian character).

Pasadena by Sherri L. Smith got touted as a Veronica Mars a-like and while I think that comparison goes a little far it is an interesting work of YA noir focused around women.

Graphic novels - Genevive Valentine's run on Catwoman was very stylish and dark.

If you're cool with fantasy noir/crime crossovers then I also enjoyed Alaya Dawn Johnson's Moonshine (vampire gangs & prohibition) and Iron Cast by Destiny Soria (con-women, magic, music, gin joints...). Seanan McGuire's October Daye series ia really obvious rec but making it anyway! And Zoo City by Lauren Beukes has to be one of the best SFF noir takes out there.

Valeria Vitale said...

Thanks a lot Jodie! I didn't know almost any of the titles you mention, so a lot of new discoveries for me! Personally, I find that fantasy/magic and crime/noir work perfectly well together and I did quite enjoy Zoo City (especially its setting), so already reading online about the ones you recommend ;-)

Djibril said...

I've also just learned about the Barbara Holloway books by Kate Wilhelm, which sound like they should be exactly the sort of things we're looking for in this thread (with a twist of chaos-theory science fiction thrown in for taste). I'm going to dig into them soon…