Saturday, February 16, 2008

Female noir

There's been some discussion on a couple of blogs about female noir. Steve Lewis lead of with an excellent overview of Ursula Curtiss's dark domestic mysteries and Juri Nummelin responded in laying out the basic elements of the sub-genre.

Juri Nummelin Says: Steve Lewis
February 15th, 2008 at 11:56 am

Yes, sure, that’s the main point, but I think the lead character should have to be a woman (well, in that case, Curtiss’s novel wouldn’t fit) and the settings would have to be somewhat mundane and ordinary, just everyday life which is suddenly filled with terror. I think, and I must point out that this is based only on hearsay and not any research, that female noir was mutated into gothic romance in the late sixties and seventies. Gothic romance just became so formulaic so soon that it got difficult to tell its roots.

And I also think that female noir, for some reason or another, isn’t so strong on negative endings as male noir. Even though Dorothy Hughes is pretty bleak in her own novels that fit the bill. (Not her last one, what’s it called, from 1963?) Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith have also rather pessimistic endings. I wish someone with better knowledge than mine would do an article on female noir. Wait, Kevin Burton Smith is writing a book on female hardboiled authors, so he’ll be covering this ground too.

Ed here: then tonight on Vintage Hardboiled Reads August West talks about my longtime favorite Elizabeth Sanxay Holding:

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Pocket Book 662, Copyright 1947

I have aways heard fine things about this story and after passing it over may times to read something else, I finally got around to it. It's a strong psychological thriller, with a fine dose of mystery. The story of upper-class Lucia Holley obsessively protecting her family from scandal during WWII.

"And all that had happen to her would be, must be, pushed down, out of sight; the details of daily living would come like falling leaves to cover it."

While her husband is away at war, Lucia Holley is left with the responsibility of caring for her teenage children and her husband's father. These are the days of rationing coupons, shortages and lonely letters to loved ones in war. She is approached by a blackmailer that has some scandalous letters written by her daughter to an older man. Lucia, unable to pay the amount, starts a lonely struggle to do anything to protect her family. There is a killing and later a murder, which is related to the blackmail attempt. Lucia is spiraling with worry and panic as her involvement deepens.

Usually the female authors I read have male characters as protagonists in their crime stories. I was always stuck on Leigh Brackett, Dorothy Hughes, the Jim Sader novels by Dolores Hitchens. I was presently surprised with the characters in "The Blank Wall," especially Lucia Holley and Martin Donnelly, and I be looking forward to reading more from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

Note: Two movies based on this novel. "The Reckless Moment" (1949) and "The Deep End." (2001)

Ed here: August makes the point that Holding isn't hardboiled and I think that's true. But that doesn't mean she isn't more psychologically complex --and thus more rewarding--than many hardboiled writers. She had a streak of Edith Wharton in her fascination with the upper classes. Her novels are studies of their manners, whims, hypocrisies and failures. As Juri points out the terror of the everyday can be just as grim as the terror of the dark alley.

Holding used a variety of tropes in her work. The shipboard romance becomes a portrait of a fetching even likable gold-digger (who won't admit to herself that she's a gold digger) and a wartime murder that may involve espionage. She was also capable of pure phantasmagoria. I'm sure that Dorothy B. Hughes was a fan of hers. There are marked influences in Hughes' novel In a Lonely Place and several of Holding's books. Enriching her suspense elements was her sly quiet humor. She believed that we were all fools on one big Ship of Same. Raymond Chandler called her the best suspense writer of his generation. Even if he was bombed when he said it, it is still true.

I'm glad to see that Kevin Burton Smith is going to write a study of these women. They certainly deserve to be read.

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