Today I’m sharing a fantastic guest post from Janet Roger where she talks about women and golden age crime.
About Shamus Dust
Two candles flaring at a Christmas crib. A nurse who steps inside a church to light them. A gunshot emptied in a man’s head in the creaking stillness before dawn, that the nurse says she didn’t hear. It’s 1947 in the snowbound, war-scarred City of London, where Pandora’s Box just got opened in the ruins, City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes. Like the Buddha says, everything is connected. So it all can be explained. But that’s a little cryptic when you happen to be the shamus, and you’re standing over a corpse.
“Darwin says somewhere that the fittest to survive will always be a recently widowed redhead with brains and looks and style. Any door will open for her. A car will collect her rain or shine. She will never need to light a cigarette or dine alone or carry folding money. And for one wild, dark glance a policeman will make her allowances he makes for nobody else, because she brings out the Walter Raleigh in him.”
So says Newman, the shamus in Shamus Dust, reflecting on a woman who’s been way ahead of him since they first set eyes on each other, and wondering if he’ll catch up before all this is over. The woman, of course, is the story’s femme fatale. And the story is set squarely in my personal golden age of transgressive women. Which, of course, may not be everybody’s golden age. So I’d better explain. I’ve long been fascinated by a decade and more that starts, more or less, when Billy Wilder writes and directs his stunning version ofJames M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In other words, we’re in the period of classic films noirs.
Films noirs? They were a phenomenon that grew almost magically in a Hollywood short on resources but long on talent. They gripped a generation that had come through the pit of Depression and years of World War. And for audiencesthat had lost the temperament for Happy-Ever-After endings, they were the movies that nailed their dark, disillusioned times.
A sea change was afoot in crime writing too, I know. But our subject is criminal women, and no question, the most strikingand the smartest, the down–lowest and certainly the bestdressed were the cast of choice female transgressors that Hollywood put on film in those years. Women at home withthe slickest of grifters and seen-it-all survivors, racketeers, the opulent and the corrupt. Women tough enough to get placeseven in that crowd, and then hold on as if her life depended on it – as it often did. In my golden age, they’re hands down better drawn, more complete and more convincing on filmthan their contemporaries on the page.
How so? Well, the screenwriting is a help, and the studiosattracted the very best. Billy Wilder (no slouch himself) could still bring in Raymond Chandler, to lift his dialog for Double Indemnity into the stratosphere. Likewise the photography –silvery to let a criminal woman shimmer, shadowed to let her menace – was in the hands of visionaries ready to experiment. Their male leads weren’t so bad to bounce off either: a Fred MacMurray, a Bogart or a Mitchum are first-rate foils for a broad who can find her way around the block. And of course, there are the magisterial performances of the women themselves, placed right at the heart of the story. In my golden age she’s liable to be that stop-the-traffic redhead Newman is contemplating, who can finger a handgun just as well as a hemline.
The femme fatale in literature is as old as sex, power and money. Which is to say as old as women who, without any other kind of leverage, noticed the connection and decided to make it a career. Perhaps for that reason, when you meet her on the page in my golden age, she can read as little more than a cipher reached off the shelf. Glassy, knowing, manipulatingand corrupt, naturally. But once cut out of that cloth, she’s routinely hung out to dry; undeveloped and unexplored as a character, unconvincing and on the whole unlikely. Much as I’m a fan, the same Raymond Chandler – who writes an evil but terrifyingly sane Phyllis Dietrichson for Billy Wilder – writes Carmen Sternwood (in The Big Sleep) and Eileen Wade(in The Long Goodbye) as simply unhinged in his own novels.It’s quite a loss. Martha Vickers shows how big a loss when she fleshes Carmen out brilliantly in the movie.
And the fleshing out is the point. Because in my golden agethe femme fatale is put in the hands of the most incendiarysilver screen goddesses. Likely you’ll already have favorites of your own. If not, try Barbara Stanwyck (in that Double Indemnity, 1944), Jane Greer (Out of the Past, 1947) orLizabeth Scott (Dead Reckoning, also 1947). Each one takesthat crime fiction commonplace of sex and power and makesit three-dimensional onscreen. Each one can weigh a hapless male with her cocktail eye: one measure You’re Sold Already, one measure It Shouldn’t Be This Easy, one measure The Possibilities are Endless. For a decade or more it became the transgressive woman’s look for those dark, disillusioned times. Hollywood showed us how to write it.
About the author
Janet is an historical fiction author, writing literary crime. She’s published by Troubador Publishing in the UK and represented by JKS Communications Literary Publicity in the USA. She trained in archaeology, history and Eng. Lit. and has a special interest in the early Cold War. Her debut novel, Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder is due 28 October and is currently attracting widespread media interest.
I’d like to say a huge thank you Janet for taking the time to write this guest post and I wish her every success with Shamus Dust which I am immensely looking forward to reading it soon.