Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir

I was in a independent bookstore looking for Megan Abbott's novels but they were sold out. I did find this gem edited by Megan and am glad I picked it up.

Val McDermid wrote the foreword and provides an interesting perspective on the role of women in hardboiled stories
I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well.
Here's the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed that his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years we've been stuck in this gruesome girlie grove because of one man's screwed-up sexuality.

Megan has collected 24 stories terrific stories. What you won't find among the female characters are private detectives and police officers.
The stories in A hell of a Woman invite us into the world, and minds, of both kinds of female characters who do frequent noir--the girl-Friday secretary the moll--but are seldom given center stage, and the kinds of women who more commonly occupy only the fringes of noir or do not appear at all.

The stories are grouped under five categories with attention grabbing labels:

    Minxes, Shapeshifters and Hothouse Flowers
    Housewives, Madonnas and Girls Next door
    Gold-diggers, Hustlers and B Girls
    Working girls, Tomboys and Girls Friday
    Hellcats, Madwomen and Outlaws

Some of the authors I was familiar with: Zoe Sharp, Sandra Scoppettone, Ken Bruen, and Christa Faust. But one of the joys of an anthology like this is the discovery of new authors. There isn't a single author in this collection of whose works I wouldn't want to read more.

I don't want to highlight some authors because it means excluding others so I am going to mention the first and last stories. Annette Meyers leads off with It's Too Late, Baby. Susie Rae is a hustler, scanner, and thief looking for the ultimate meal ticket. From her high school summer job we follow her scheming and scamming to California. The final sentence should remind you of something that happened in 2002.

SJ Rozen's Undocumented has a very different character. It is a story of determination and sacrifice to preserve family. Wei An-Lin is an undocumented Chinese woman smuggled into California by one of the Tongs, working off her passage in a sweatshop. By the end of the slow-paced, non-violent, story the reader has to look at Wei An-Lei as a hell of a woman. I get goose-bumps.

If McDermid's foreword and the stories themselves were not enough, Abbott added an appendix, Women in the Dark, where an array of authors, booksellers, critics, and film aficionados pay homage to favorite noir writers, characters and performers. These 36 short sections are a terrific resource about women in noir. If you like this theme, you will be able to add to your Netflix and reading list. In particular I want to find Dorothy B. Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse described by James Agnew as "one of the most hardboiled books ever--charbroiled really ..." and In a Lonely Place.

Busted Flush Press has another anthology that I have to add to my noir library -- Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir.