CIS: The top five women of noir

Classics in September — Several months ago we discussed five of the best American novelists currently writing in the hardboiled tradition. All of the writers featured in that piece are top-notch crime authors – but they also had something else in common: they were all men. So this time, let’s take a look at some of the greatest female writers in the hardboiled tradition.

While hardboiled and noir fiction are not the same thing, noir arises out of hardboiled fiction. James M Cain’s protagonists may have been very different from Dashiell Hammett’s, but there is no denying that he was influenced by Hammett stylistically and thematically. Some of these women, like some of the authors mentioned in our earlier piece, are better classified as hardboiled, and some are better classified as noir. Some could fit into either category. But each author has turned in some of finest crime fiction you’re likely to read. So without further ado, let’s revisit these classic femmes fatales, in roughly chronological order.

Dorothy B Hughes
Hughes is probably best known as the author of In a Lonely Place, though more people are familiar with the 1950 Nicholas Ray movie than the novel upon which it is based. This is a shame. While the film is a classic in its own right, it is not half as gripping, insightful or unsettling as Hughes’ novel. And her other novels are equally compelling. Dorothy B Hughes expertly infused her books with noirish intensity, as her fatally flawed protagonists slowly unravel under the pressure of their own errors. She was also ahead of her time, addressing issues of race in Ride the Pink Horse and the newly reprinted The Expendable Man, long before it was popular to do so. Hughes wrote psychological thrillers before this was a recognised sub-genre, and her novels are not only interesting stories, they are engrossing character studies. Perhaps most importantly, Dorothy B Hughes blends noir tragedy with hardboiled characters and dialogue better than perhaps any other author writing in these styles.
The Expendable Man on Amazon UK and US

Margaret Millar
An underappreciated novelist today, Millar is often regarded as little more than a trivia item because of her marriage to Kenneth Millar – better known under his pen name, Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s critical reputation has waned in recent decades, but at least his Lew Archer novels are still in print. Margaret Millar’s novels are mostly out of print these days, but used copies are not difficult to find, and are certainly worth the effort, and Beast in View came out on Kindle last year. Unlike her husband, Millar did not write PI fiction. Like Macdonald, however, the Ontario-born author wrote deeply textured books that went beyond the genre and explored themes of identity and family. Not just an author of psychological thrillers, Millar is suffused with the tension between conscious and subconscious. The Millars had a rocky marriage, but Kenneth was never anything but forthright in his admiration of Margaret’s writing. Read her novels and you will be an admirer, too.
Beast in View on Amazon UK and US

Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s most famous character, is almost always described as amoral and sexually ambiguous. Patricia Highsmith was a brilliant writer who could be flinty and a bit amoral herself. But it certainly served her writing well. If she wrote vividly about amoral characters, she also explored the pangs of conscience experienced by those caught in their webs. Highsmith was launched to fame after Alfred Hitchcock adapted her first novel, Strangers on a Train, for film. She went on to write the Ripliad, five novels chronicling the scheming career of international con man Tom Ripley. Highsmith also wrote The Cry of the Owl, Edith’s Diary and a great many other novels. Ripley and her other protagonists are as alienated as they are amoral, and the resultant psychopathic sense of irony makes Highsmith as important as a literary stylist as a mystery author. While noir is a strong current in Patricia Highsmith’s fiction, she makes it her own in a way that few authors have.
Strangers On A Train on Amazon UK and US

Sara Paretsky
Hardboiled fiction began with private eyes before branching out to include more unsavory noir protagonists. But while Jim Thompson and David Goodis followed Hammett and Chandler, female authors were more successful in noir for quite a while before VI Warshawski first appeared in 1982. Indemnity Only was part of the resurgence of PI literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Three decades later, Sara Paretsky’s debut remains a genre classic, and she is still writing VI Warshawski novels. Paretsky is notable not only as a female crime novelist, but also for creating a female character as hardboiled as any good male PI – yet distinctive. Warshawski is a quintessential hardboiled shamus: cynical, cracking wise and sexually frank. But Paretsky explores the genre by examining what it means for a female to exhibit these characteristics. The result is solidly hardboiled, but an innovation that earns Sara Paretsky a place among other classic writers – male or female.
Indemnity Only on Amazon UK and US

Megan Abbott
If I had to choose a contemporary author whose novels would stand up with Hughes or Highsmith or Paretsky 10, 20 or 50 years hence, I’d pick Megan Abbott – and I suspect many readers would, also. Like James Ellroy, Abbott has a talent for recreating hardboiled, retro prose outside of PI stories. Abbott’s first several novels are fresh but hard-bitten noir tales of the Forties and Fifties. But her two most recent novels, The End of Everything and Dare Me are all the more haunting for their contemporary setting and young female protagonists. Whatever the period her novels are set in, Abbott earns a place among the classics because she knows them so well. She is not only a first-rate novelist, but also a literary scholar. Few understand the masters of noir as well as Megan Abbott, and even fewer are more likely to earn a place among them.
The Song is You on Amazon UK and US

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5 Comments

  1. DispatchesFromNoir Reply

    Yes, she has been great–in Hard Case Crime novels and in other novels, too. Hard to choose just 5! Vicki Hendricks is underappreciated, but her Florida Noir is outstanding. S.J. Rozan is on top of the heap when it comes to current PI writers. Too many writers, too few spots.

    Sara Paretsky edited a volume of women’s crime writing about 20 or so years ago. A Women’s Eye, I think. Paretsky had a story in there, Hughes was there. Marcia Muller, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Sue Grafton, unfortunately–but every collection is bound to have a weak spot.

  2. Tom Edsall Reply

    This list is missing Denise Mina whose Garnethill Trilogy is in the highest ranks of crime noir regardless of gender.

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