The misogynistic gumshoe, whose misgivings about women are sadly justified by the end of a hard-boiled detective novel, is a relic of a time when Los Angeles was still teetering between the lawlessness of the Old West and the seediness of urban living. Just because, though, Walter Neff and Samuel Spade seem out of place in contemporary crime fiction, doesn't mean that noir is a genre of the past — women writers are starting to take control of noir, replacing cynical insurance salesmen and boozy private detectives with female anti-heroes from the trenches of society — prostitutes, gang-members, and porn stars.
The Guardian chronicles the rise of the female protagonist in contemporary noir, crediting authors from Americans such as Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn and Christa Faust, to British authors like Cathi Unsworth, Dreda Say Mitchell and Joolz Denby. Under this new generation of female authors, the women populating noir's back alleys and smoky offices aren't strictly victims or femmes fatale — they're fully-fledged (insofar as any character in noir or hard-boiled fiction is "fully-fledged") characters with talents for solving or inciting sordid crimes. Books like Flynn's Gone Girl (heeeeeeyy, book club) and Unsworth's latest seaside noir/fucked up teenage friendship story Weirdo are inverting some of noir's most recognizable gender relationships, and, in so doing, breathing fresh air into a genre that, quite frankly smells like it's been smoking too many Parliaments.
What's cool about noir (and this really true about any genre book/movie/entertainment medium I have not mentioned (marionette shows?)) is that simple changes, i.e. switching genders, moving a crime from downtown L.A. to a suburban high school, can make the genre seem fresh while at the same time maintaining the genre's most essential characteristic — predictability. Reading within a genre — any genre, really — means that you expect a certain kind and number of things to happen. Let's say somebody has to get impaled gruesomely in a horror book, or in erotica someone's torso needs to be unwrapped like a leftover hamburger bursting free from its cellophane.
It's not just enough for these things to happen, though, as if they were being ticked off a checklist — all the old plots and twists need to feel fresh and exciting, which is why putting women in the protagonistic driver's seat suddenly gives noir a fresh angle. Unsworth, who's been called the "Queen of Noir," thinks it's important to "have female voices" in noir, since it offers readers (and authors) a new way to see what are essentially recycled (blah blah, no plots are original, blah blah) plots. Still, says Unsworth, women who write noir are often pressured to push their crime fiction more into the mainstream:
Women crime writers are still pigeonholed. There's definitely more pressure on women to write a series character, essentially to write mainstream crime. Publishers will often say that male readers don't like women writing noir, although I've found that's not actually the case.
With the success of books like Gone Girl, it seems that readers, at least, are willing put a little more emphasis on the merits of the actual story, and a little less on the sex organs languishing between the legs of its overtaxed author. Besides, how many more times can anyone read about some asshole private detective who's such a raging woman-hater that he can't even tell when he's being outwitted by one?
Queens of noir [Guardian]