One of the more memorable kinds of characters, especially (but not exclusively) in Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novels, is the femme fatale. She is alluring and seductive, and that often spells ruin for anyone who gets involved with her. She’s an interesting character, actually. On the one hand, she is often depicted as wily, deceptive and sometimes a criminal. On the other, she is also depicted as independent, strong, and unwilling to accept the roles that society has laid out for her. You may not trust her, but you can’t help but admire her in a way. That kind of complexity has made the femme fatale an enduring sort of character. I’ve only space here for a few examples, but that’s all right; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could, anyway.
In Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason gets a visit from a woman who calls herself Eva Griffin. She says that she is being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for a tabloid called Spicy Bits. The tabloid has evidence that Griffin, who is married, was at the Beechwood Inn with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke. Now, Locke is threatening to release the story unless Griffin pays him. She wants Mason to find Locke and stop him. Mason agrees, but almost immediately runs into problems in this case. The major one is that Eva Griffin is not who she says she is. Her surname is actually Belter, and she’s been telling several other lies, too, about her situation. Still, she is Mason’s client, so he keeps working on her behalf. Then one night, she places a frantic call to him. Her husband George has been shot, and she’s terrified. Mason goes to her, and before he knows it, is drawn into a murder case in which both he and his client are suspects. He’s going to have to find Belter’s real killer if he’s going to clear his own name and defend his client.
Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia features noted archaeologist Eric Leidner and his wife, Louise. Leidner and his dig team are hoping to make some important discoveries at their site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise is joining the team for the first time, and isn’t fitting in particularly well. On the one hand, she can be both polite and charming when she wishes; and she has a certain ‘polish’ and sophistication. On the other hand, she can be rude and cutting as well. But even those who dislike her admit that she has a sort of magic that can draw people to her. One afternoon, she is murdered in her bedroom. Hercule Poirot is in the area, having finished another case, and is now on his way back to London. He is persuaded to change his plans and investigate the murder. As he looks into the case, he gets to know quite a lot about the victim’s personality:
‘She disliked domination – she disliked the feeling of belonging to someone else – in fact she disliked playing second fiddle.
He also learns how Louise Leidner impacted everyone around her. That effect certainly plays its role in her death.
Fans of Raymond Chandler will know that several of his stories feature femmes fatales. In The Big Sleep, for instance, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to stop a blackmailer, book dealer Arthur Geiger, from extorting his family. Marlowe is persuaded, and goes in search of Geiger; but by the time he finds his quarry, Geiger’s dead. Sternwood’s daughter Carmen is at the murder scene, but she is either drugged or having a breakdown, so she can’t help much. Marlowe decides to get her to safety; that choice draws him into a case of multiple murder. It also means he crosses paths with both Carmen and her sister Vivian Regan. Both are seductive and, in their ways, quite toxic. As their father puts it,
‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.’
And both women’s femme fatale personalities play their roles in the story’s events. I know, I know, fans of The Lady in the Lake and of Farewell, My Lovely. Both have terrific examples of femmes fatales.
James M. Cain also included several femmes fatales in his work. For instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, we meet Frank Chambers, an aimless drifter who ends up working at a roadside diner. He is attracted to the owner’s wife, Cora Papadakis, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Cora is unhappy in her marriage, and wants both her freedom and the diner. So she and Frank plot to kill her husband, Nick. Then, everything starts to spin out of control, and as with most noir stories, things don’t go at all as planned. They don’t in Double Indemnity, either. In that story, insurance agent Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. It doesn’t take long for him to fall under her spell; and before much time has passed, she’s drawn him into a plot to kill her husband for insurance money. As you can guess, things don’t work out the way either hopes they will.
Minette Walters’ The Breaker is the story of the murder of thirty-two-year-old Kate Sumner, whose body is discovered by Chapman’s Pool, in Dorset. PC Nick Ingram is first on the scene, so he begins the investigation. He, DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter narrow down the list of suspects to three. One is the victim’s husband, William. The other two are an actor, Stephen Harding, and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. In this case, we don’t have the sort of femme fatale who induces a man to murder someone else. But we do have a seductive character who is independent and, in her own way, quite manipulative.
And then there’s Megan Abbott’s historical novel Queenpin. That’s the story of the infamous Gloria Denton, hardened mob moll who’s ‘seen it all and done it all.’ We see Gloria through the eyes of her twenty-two-year-old protégée, who’s recently been hired to do the books at a seedy Las Vegas club called Tee Hee. Little by little Gloria introduces the narrator of the story to the late-night-life of casinos, betting, and a lot of money. Then, the narrator falls for a small-time gambler, Vic Riordan. Now, everything changes, and things begin to take a very noir turn…
Speaking of Abbotts…Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel features Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has a lot of the qualities of a femme fatale. She’s independent, seductive, and clever. She is also very toxic, and stops at nothing to get what she wants – including murder. Christine has been raised in this dysfunctional atmosphere, and it’s had a powerful impact on her. But then, she sees that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to get caught in the same dangerous pattern. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free both of them from Eve’s spell.
And femmes fatales do have a way of casting spells over people. It’s part of what can make them so compelling. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey, Phil Collins, and Nathan East’s Easy Lover.