Noir stories by women

‘As in a choral affirmation of female autonomy, female self-identification, female self-possession, the voices of Cutting-Edge concur.’ [Joyce Carol Oates]

Noir and dark crime fiction are often conflated but they are separate and distinct things. As Oates points out in her introduction, there’s noir in the music of Billy Holiday and Miles Davis or the poems of Sylvia Plath. Just as there is in Touch of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly. Noir is often described as cynical, Oates prefers ‘stark realism’ as a definition, it’s about a certain sensibility, certainly not crime per se.

What do these women writers bring to noir fiction? Firstly, women, (femme fatales), are often seen in one of two ways: as muse or sexual object. Oates has encouraged the contributors here to explore their instinct to challenge these norms and in doing so take a healthy dig at the patriarchy. Just to be clear anybody, any man, offended by this redressing of the balance is a wallflower to delicate to be allowed out on their own.

Female noir isn’t new, Oates mentions Ida Lupino, a woman who played a femme fatale or two in her time, who became a fine Hollywood director and made radical films that challenged perceptions of women and of victims of crime. Sadly though women writers, who are at the vanguard of much crime fiction, are still rare in modern noir. Oates questions whether the female brain is different from the male brain, (our neuroanatomical make up), it is, but it’s difficult to really identify that difference because education, culture, upbringing, environment and a host of things also influence writing. That aside what is obvious here is the reduction in cliché and stereotyping of female characters and their stories. Oates notes that for noir writing the difference in female fiction is not style or sensibility but perspective.

Mostly these are crime stories, feminist crime stories and there’s an element of vengeance on the opposite sex, some truth telling and some leg pulling. But none of that would matter if the stories weren’t entertaining and readable, which they are, the message is a bonus.

‘Honoré de Balzac remarked that behind every great fortune there is a crime. Certainly, behind most great works of literature there is a crime, or crimes – the rich, fecund soil in which noir flourishes.’

I’ve highlighted a few of the stories that really struck me but honestly I could have chosen any as a good indication of the merits to this collection:

One of These Nights Livia Llewellyn. 1978, Two fifteen year old girls are dropped off at the Titlow lido, Nicole has a bone to pick with another girl and her friend is there for support. Only this tale of sexual awakening and growing up in a predatory male environment is going to end very badly. Atmospheric, touching, chilling and realistic.

A History of the World in Five Objects SJ Rozan. A woman arrives home and goes through the routine of settling in for the night, as she changes her clothes and prepared her dinner memories are sparked by domestic/personal items, her thoughts becoming more sinister, more desperate. A brilliant play on the ‘world history in 100 objects’ theme. A scarily poignant tale.

‘Can’t we what? I try to say something nice and you’re whining.’

The Hunger Lisa Lim. An illustrated/graphic story. Lilly is always hungry after a death but she can’t make her mind up about what her wants to eat. Her husband Chin got himself murdered in an alley in Chinatown, a grisly crime but not the murder Lilly is referring to. An insight into family, arranged marriage and the in-laws, a compassionate tale of a break-down.

An Early Specimen Elizabeth McCracken. She feels like a tourist in Italy although she doesn’t have much in common with the people milling around the Uffizi. She is no longer meek, no longer young. An off-kilter tale with a twist.

Thief Steph Cha. Cha wrote one of the books of the year in 2019, Your House Will Pay, so I was excited to read this story and I wasn’t disappointed. At a funeral lunch for her son, shot dead during a robbery, Jangmi is lost in her grief, Isaac was only twenty-one. She hadn’t spoken to him in a while, she blames his friend Teddy for leading him astray; drugs and crime. The money donated by the family and friends for Isaac’s funeral costs has gone missing, who would steal at a funeral? A deeply emotional tale of loss and compassion.

Margaret Atwood contributes some powerful poetry and Joyce Carol Oates rounds off this collection with her own classy noir  tale Assassins.

There are sixteen stories here, only one or two don’t quite hit the mark as I see it, but the vast majority are inventive, original and intriguing, a handful are superb. There’s a real heart to this anthology, Joyce Carol Oates, among her many talents is a fine collator of stories and this collection is well curated. It has that quality of a concept album. The contributors are among the most exciting authors working this field; stalwarts and newcomers. These stories are poignant, intelligent and thought provoking, some will stay with the reader long after reading.

Review by Paul Burke
Personal read 4*
Group read 4*

Pushkin Press, paperback, ISBN 9781782276517, out now.