She’ll Get a Hold on You, Believe It*

Femmes FatalesOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Minette Walters, Patricia Abbott, Raymond Chandler

32 responses to “She’ll Get a Hold on You, Believe It*

  1. Well, Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon comes immediately to my mind; this, of course, opens up all sorts of speculations about Hammett’s relationships with women (in real life) versus his representations of women in fiction, but that is a topic for another time and place. Now, as for your posting overall, I am so grateful for all of the great “previews” to some intriguing titles, some which I’ve read and some that I will be finding and reading in the near future. I am especially intrigued by the Gardner and Walters titles. So, thanks for the clues to better reading adventures down the road.

    • You’re quite right, R.T., about Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Trust you and the rest of those kind enough to comment here to fill in the gaps I’ve left. You make a well-taken point, too, that we could ask questions about Hammett’s views in real life. But as you say, that’s another topic, and perhaps at some point I’ll look at authors’ views; it’d be interesting. In the meantime, I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I do hope you’ll like the Gardner and the Walters if you get the chance to read them. I think in both cases, we see interesting examples of the femme fatale, ‘though the two female characters are quite different in temperament.

  2. Ooh, the femme fatale, an intriguing character indeed. I’m reading Spilled Milk by Paul Dale Anderson (very violent; it comes with a warning label) and the main character is a femme fatale who targets those who’ve harmed her. It’s written as though she’s speaking to her victims. Very unusual, but incredibly effective.

    • That does sound like an unusual structure and way to tell a story, Sue. But sometimes, innovation really works. And it is interesting to get the view of the femme fatale, isn’t it? I agree: the femme fatale is really fascinating when done well.

  3. When I recently did a post on tropes in Agatha Christie, and invited suggestions from other fans, Lucy Fisher made the excellent point that Christie did very good women characters who were very sexy and beautiful and so on, but actually couldn’t ‘keep’ a man, or maintain a relationship – eg in Evil Under the Sun. I thought that was a really interesting and true perception – can’t give many examples for spoilers, but I’ve been thinking about it since Lucy said that, and seeing the pattern elsewhere.

    • I remember that post and those comments, Moira. I think Lucy had a really interesting point about that sort of female character. Like you, I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t mention titles. But I thought of a few, and I know there are more out there. At some point I may do a post on that if I can find a way to do it without giving too much away.

  4. It’s interesting that most of the femmes fatales in your post or that I can think of are either in older books or ones with historical settings. I can think of two in books I’ve read recently, both historical. There’s a fine femme fatale in Gordon Ferris’ Gallowglass which adds to the whole noir feel of the book – set in the 1940s. And William Boyd has one in Waiting for Sunrise set around WW1 – though that book has too much of an air of underlying humour to feel genuinely noir-ish.

    • You know, FictionFan, I had the same sense when I was preparing this post. You see this character a lot more often in older and historical fiction. That in itself is an interesting thing, since there are such people in today’s world. I thought of a few modern examples, but mentioning them would have given spoilers. Even so, I wonder if it’s as common now. Thanks for the food for thought. And thanks for mentioning Gallowglass. That’s a good example and a great series.

  5. Col

    Struggling to come up with any myself. Maybe they are found more in older books as Fiction Fan suggests, and most of my reading is more contemporary.

  6. It wasn’t until I read your post that I realised that I actually miss the good old femme fatale, she doesn’t appear too often nowadays (possibly because the authors try not to be so non PC?)

    • Interesting question, Cleo. It could very well be that authors don’t consider that sort of character to be PC. Whatever the reason, I think you are absolutely right that we don’t see the femme fatale in crime fiction the way we used to see her.

  7. Well, since it’s a French term, I have to think of course of some French examples. And there are plenty of them. My favourite is Aimée (which means ‘loved one’- talk about sly aside from the author) in the appropriately-named ‘Fatale’ by Jean-Patrick Manchette – a woman who has her own interests at heart, with murderous consequences, yet still retains a strong moral core. Complex like hell, beautiful and addictive…

    Then there is Sebastien Japrisot’s ‘The Woman in the Car with the Sunglasses and Gun’ (my own literal translation, it may be known as something else in English – it was also adapted for cinema) – Dany Longo starts out as an ordinary young woman, rather shy and unsure of herself… and ends up as something quite different.

    Another unexpected femme fatale is in Syvlie Granotier’s ‘Belle à tuer’ (Pretty Enough to Kill – or Kill For, the French term is ambiguous) – the hitchhiker from hell, one might say. Sadly, this still remains to be translated into English.

    • Oh, those are just great examples, Marina Sofia! Thanks very much for sharing them. All three of these characters show that combination of seductiveness, independence and danger that makes the femme fatale so memorable. I’m especially drawn to the Granotier; I read some of her work and liked it very much. I’ll have to put that one on my wish list.

  8. Thansk for reminding me that I have yet to get Patti’s book, which is clearly a must! The Fatal woman is a fascinating conceit, sociologically and historically, but I like the way new women authors in particular have reclaimed it as their own (I’m thinking of Megan Abbott in aprticular here).

    • I like that, too, Sergio. And you’re absolutely right about Megan Abbott; she’s done a fantastic job of it. And as to Concrete Angel, I do hope you’ll get to that one. It’s a terrific novel, I think, and with very strong characters.

  9. Margot, I remember Eva Griffin’s character from “The Case of the Velvet Claws” all too well. When I reread Gardner’s first novel (I think), I wondered how Mason could allow himself to be led by her. He does stand by his clients, doesn’t he? The earliest Perry Masons were the grittiest and a far cry from the courtroom dramas that followed, and those were equally absorbing too.

    • Eva Griffin is a memorable character, isn’t she, Prashant? You’right, too, that The Case of the Velvet Claw is Gardner’s first Perry Mason outing. Those early outings are a bit grittier than the later ones are, and it’s interesting to see that change over time. Both kinds of stories can be compelling.

  10. Let’s not forget Irene Adler, the femme fatale adversary of Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” To Holmes, she was always THE woman, and was one of the very few people – either male or female – ever to get the better of Holmes.

    And, to mention another kind of femme fatale in a completely different setting…how about Dr. Fu Manchu’s daughter, Karamaneh, who appears in several of Sax Rohmer’s thrillers about the evil doctor? She’s a fascinating character – quite alluring and generally wily enough to deceive adversaries!

    • She is indeed, Les. I’m glad that you mentioned her – very glad. And you’re quite right about Irene Adler, too. She’s certainly wily, clever and fast enough to ‘count’ as a femme fatale. As you say, one of the few who bests Holmes.

  11. Nice to see Eve Moran and Gloria Denton in the same piece. Thanks!

  12. The femme fatale, in fiction and the movies, is such an enduring character. Chandler, Hammett, Cain, yes. But I’m glad you mentioned Agatha Christie. We don’t usually associate the femme fatale with her work, or not so much. Which brings up an interesting question (answered somewhat by Marina Sofia in her comment): is the femme fatale a (mostly) American creation, from the 1930s and 1940s, or does the character type go across cultures and eras?
    One of my favorites is Cathie Moffett (Jane Greer) in the film Out of the Past. She has all the qualities: ruthless, amoral, beautiful, manipulative, independent, reckless, impulsive, opportunistic, etc. I’m not sure if she’s portrayed the same in the novel on which the film is based, Build My Gallows High, by Geoffrey Homes as I haven’t read it.

    • I think you’ve mentioned some excellent examples of the femme fatale, Bryan. And I really don’t think that this is a character unique to American 1930s/’40s crime fiction. I think you can see this sort of character in all sorts of crime and suspense novels from several different cultures and times.

  13. Kathy D.

    There is a femme fatale in the extreme in David Lagerccrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the supposed follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. And it is absolutely not Lizbeth Salander.
    Also, Nero Wolfe often encountered femme fatales in his investigations.

    • You’re right about Nero Wolfe, Kathy. There are plenty of femmes fatales in those stories. I’ll admit I’ve not read The Girl in the Spider’s Web.I know it’s certainly gotten lots of attention, though.

  14. Kathy D.

    I was skeptical that Lagercrantz’s book, but after I finished it, I thought it was good. It’s off to a slow start, but it picks up once Lizbeth Salander gets involved. And the story is interesting.

    • I’m glad the book worked for you, Kathy. It’s certainly gotten a lot of attention; and like you, a lot of people have been wary of it. It’s good to hear that you think the story is interesting.

  15. Kathy D.

    it took about 100 pages to get interesting.

  16. I just recently got a copy of Queenpin and hope to read it in 2016. And I loved Patti Abbott’s book, Concrete Angel. One of my favorite reads this year.

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