Women and the Pulp Crime Tradition
By William E. Wallace
"Love is the world's infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it."
-- the epigraph to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: from Tony Kushner's play, "The Illusion."
Last March I was in the audience at a panel on the contemporary pulp scene at Left Coast Crime when somebody asked why women writers haven't been major generators of stories in the pulp tradition that includes hardboiled crime and noir.
For a moment, the panelists -- Gary Phillips (The Warlord of Willow Ridge), Chris Holm (the Collector trilogy) , Dale Berry (Tales of the Moonlight Cutter) and moderator Juliet Blackwell (Secondhand Spirits) -- seemed baffled. Then in the discussion that followed, this answer emerged, haltingly at first but with growing conviction and confidence:
They have -- and they still are.
For purposes of this discussion, what I mean by the pulp tradition is what Merriam-Webster calls "crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings." The Oxford English Dictionary definition is possibly more accurate and less repetitive: "A genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity."
Think Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Sara Paretsky (Critical Mass), Margaret Millar (Beyond This Point Are Monsters), or Marcia Muller (Wolf in the Shadows).
As Sarah Weinman put it in her introduction to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin; 2013) "[women noir and crime authors] color outside the lines, blur between categories and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society."
Women have been writing hardboiled fiction since the first pulps appeared, and some have been recognized as the original founders and shapers of the form.
Elisabeth Holding, who started by cranking out romance fiction in the roaring twenties, took up the hardboiled form of detective fiction after the stock market collapsed in the first U.S. depression. She wrote eighteen novels that loosely fit into the genre before her death in 1955, and won high praise for her technique, characterization and realism from luminaries such as Anthony Boucher and Raymond Chandler, who once called her “the top suspense writer of them all.”
|Elisabeth Sanxay Holding: |
Chandler called her "the top suspense writer of them all."
Holding's accomplishments in the field are particularly noteworthy when you consider that she began writing "hardboiled" crime yarns almost as soon as the genre first emerged from the romantic fiction tradition that gave it birth and its philosophical underpinning.
Carroll John Daly, who wrote the Race Williams private detective stories while churning out suspense fiction for Black Mask magazine, has been credited with writing the first "hardboiled" detective story, "The False Burton Combs" in 1922. Holding's first detective tale, "Miasma," appeared only seven years later.
|Olive Higgins Prouty|
Olive Higgins Prouty, one of Holding's contemporaries, is associated with the noir genre, which was an outgrowth of the pulp tradition. Her novel Stella Dallas (HarperCollins; re-released in 1990) was later made into an immensely popular film with Barbara Stanwyck as the title character. It's the story of a working class woman who marries into wealth but finds herself excluded from her rich husband's social circle.
(Incidentally, James M. Cain's noir classic, Mildred Pierce (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard; new edition released in 2010) was originally published nearly twenty years later. Cain's novel explores wealth and class in a similar fashion in Mildred Pierce, although his novel features more overt criminality -- blackmail, embezzlement, fraud and physical assault -- and a decidedly different twist on the social climbing subplot.)
Contemporary women working in the noir and hardboiled tradition use many of the same literary techniques as their male counterparts -- adopting the central character's point of view, often in the form of a first person narrative, and often writing the story as if dictated by the protagonist; they can be as brutal as the boys but generally approach their material from the perspective of a female protagonist, substituting psychological menace for the physical brutality used by their male counterparts.
On the brutal side, consider Gillian Flynn's Adora, the villainess from her novel Sharp Objects (Crown; 2006). Adora is a homicidal lunatic that resembles a female version of Patrick Bateman, the central character in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (Vintage reissue; 2010) or Lou Ford, the protagonist in Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard; 1991).
She is vain, pushy, duplicitous and manipulative, a villain's villain capable of almost any sort of obscene violence. She also happens to be the protagonist's mother -- and her secret tormentor.
Flynn's Adora's is sadistic and seething with sociopathic madness. She could easily be the work of a male author. In fact, Flynn's villainess is painted with an almost masculine brutality in much the same way that Joan Medford, the central figure in James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress (Hard Case; 2012) is conjured with a woman's understated touch.
Another good example -- although of a totally different type -- is the commercial real estate broker named Cara Willis who is the protagonist in Patti Abbott's short story, "The Higher the Heels" Thuglit, Issue Eight. Cara discovers she is being conned by a commercial burglar she is dating. It seems the fellow strikes up temporary liaisons with female brokers in order to case properties he is planning to rob.
Having figured out his scam, Cara could report him to the police. Instead, she sets a diabolical trap that puts him out of business -- permanently. The yarn reads like a story by Patricia Highsmith, right down to the indifference Cara shows when her scheme goes fatally awry:
Cara is as neat a femme fatale as any in the genre, but she is not overdrawn like many women in pulp thrillers written by men. Her amorality is even more chilling for this reason: the reader is confronted with an antisocial act that perfectly fits Hannah Arendt's description of "banal evil." The fact that she gets away with murder despite her bland exterior makes her more frightening than a cartoon madwoman, rending her clothes and frothing about her desire for revenge.
Though women hardboiled writers occasionally indulge in what seems to be a masculine taste for blood, they seem to favor mental torture to the physical stuff.
For example, in "Ric with no K," a story Abbott wrote for Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. Two), an anthology of crime fiction, an underage girl calmly relates how she got involved with a petty hoodlum who is much older and how the relationship led to death and disaster.
It is a study in how a refusal to acknowledge the truth -- or even know what it is -- can put a person into a dream world in which even a sociopath can be seen as having redeeming characteristics.
The "matter of fact" narrative, told from the perspective of an individual who is, in some ways, as unworldly as a novice in a convent, is a perfect example of, in the words of Ron Scheer, using language and sentences "that shun emotion. It's tone is matter of fact, which is often a mask for deep irony." In the story, someone who is portrayed as naive and unworldly with an imperfect grasp of her own history, gives an excellent example of the hardboiled approach.
Hilary Davidson, the author of Blood Always Tells (Forge Books; 2014), follows a similar approach in her short story "Fair Warning," (Beaten to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. Two), a tale of the evil that can accompany office lust. It is a brilliantly written story in which the central character, Emily, finds herself the subject of a nasty series of threats channeled through her office mail in a fashion no one can figure out.
The tale, though short, takes as many devious turns as a crooked taxi driver. Emily's friend, Vanessa, acts suspiciously, but so does her boyfriend, Jason. It turns out Jason has the kind of secrets that can lead to something nasty. Conclusions are drawn and they turn out to be lethal -- as well as wrong. By the end of the story, Emily doesn't know who to trust. We do: Hilary Davidson; she knows exactly what she is doing, both to her characters and to us.
In some cases, women who write in the noir tradition skip the crime angle entirely, or reduce it to a mechanism for putting their subjects in dire circumstances; how the characters react to those situations is the real crux of these stories.
This is the case in Bonnie Jo Campbell's excellent short story, "World of Gas," published in the collection of her work American Salvage (Wayne State University Press; 2009). When a woman named Susan comes home to find her 15-year-old son in bed with his girlfriend while a television set babbles the Jerry Springer show in an adjoining room she explodes in a way that few "hardboiled" men would:
"I love her, Mom," Josh said. "You wouldn't understand that. . . "
"Well, if you love her, then why in the hell would you take a chance on getting her pregnant?" asked Susan. "Why take a chance on screwing up both your lives?" Susan was also thinking: if this girl means so much to you, then why don't you turn off the damned TV when you're in bed with her?
|Bonnie Jo Campbell|
In another story in the Campbell anthology, "The Inventor," a down on his luck hunter accidentally runs into a young woman with his truck when she crosses the road in front of him. He is tortured by the incident, which reminds him of the death of Ricky Hendrickson, a teenage friend, years earlier:
He has always been able to clearly picture [Ricky] in his coffin, silent and pale, his freckles covered with makeup, and he has a photographic vision of Ricky building homemade bottle rockets beside the pond, with charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter, but when he sees Ricky's face in the girl's face, he fears he is losing his mind.
"Please, don't die," he whispers.
There is no crime in either tale, but both have the doomed tone associated with the best of noir, a grim aura that hangs over each story as surely as if they had focused on murder, blackmail or theft.
Similarly, Amy Grech -- who describes herself as a horror writer, but has worked in the hardboiled tradition with stories like her novel, The Art of Deception,(Xlibris; 2000), a tale about a rape victim's complicated scheme to get revenge, and ".38 Special" a nice little piece in Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. One), the tale of a man who's lucky at love and even luckier at Russian Roulette. He shoots his load, then she shoots hers -- with lethal results.
Later, when her boyfriend gets a chance to pull the trigger, the outcome is not what you thought would come out.
(Next time: women who write in the pulp tradition often receive no credit for their work; we ask some of them why their efforts are downgraded or ignored).