Femmes Fatale

I’ve written a ‘femme fatale’ into my new illustrated story, ‘Deep Water’. It wasn’t a conscious decision,  I only tumbled to it as the first episodes neared completion. The work made it happen! Maybe it’s inherent in the the genre- ‘noir’.

This  ’revelation’  lead me to reread and look more closely at the mechanics of the American detective stories of the ‘30s and 40s which after all started off the whole ‘noir’ thing as we now know it- and which I’m sure embedded themselves in my ‘composing’ imagination a long time ago.

The best known line in Raymond Chandler’s classic analysis of the detective story, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ is of course: ‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

In this masterly and unflinching survey of the detective story how could Chandler do other than confirm his arch rival and immediate precursor, Dashiell Hammett as a key figure?

You have to wait till well over halfway through before Chandler gets to confront Hammett’s work. At first, he sidles up to it quoting praise by the eminent and the respected. Then, introducing criticism of Hammett as ‘lacking heart’, Chandler counterpunches that ‘The Glass Key’- Hammett’s favourite of his own tales- is actually ‘the record of a man’s devotion to a friend’.  Chandler follows up with a flurry of decisive jabs bringing Hammett’s detractors crashing to the canvas-  Hammett as an innovator of ‘authentic’ prose and who ’ wrote scenes that seem never to have been written before’.

‘After all this’ Hammett is ‘not quite enough’. Not enough?

Chandler is unequivocal in his view that both the real world and the one the fictional detective (should) inhabit is ‘not very fragrant’. That too was one of Hammett’s innovations-  he ‘took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley’, writing ‘ for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life’. Yet –and here’s the crux of it-  what is lacking for Chandler is ‘the quality of redemption’

Chandlers addition of ‘the quality of redemption’ to the detective story genre pioneered by Hammett threw up some strange and intriguing comparisons between the ‘codes’ followed by Hammett’s various investigators- the ‘Continental Op’, Sam Spade-  and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

To the unnamed and overweight ‘Op’, being a detective is a job, albeit a professional one carried out with skill and attention like concluding a business deal. No temperament, no involvement, just the pride in a job well done. It’s thrilling, ‘spare and hard-boiled’ but it’s an almost morally neutral process of determining and delivering the culpable.

Marlowe’s work is his vocation. He is a detective because of who he is and he is who he is because he is a detective. He positions himself and his honour against the grain of the disreputable world around him in defence of those he considers oppressed by and at the mercy of that world- even if they don’t appear to want him to.

How does this distinction manifest itself in dealing with that staple of this kind of detective fiction, the ‘femme fatale’?

For the ‘Op’ women are like all the other characters in Hammett’s stories, either an ally or an obstacle on the road to justice. The exception is Gabrielle Leggatt in ‘The Dain Curse’. This strange (deformed?) and unstable young woman rouses the Op’s sympathy. He nurses her out of  drug addiction in an uncharacteristically gentle way. This could be rationalised either as simply a necessary extension of a professional ethic or as her ‘disadvantages’ in life making her a plausible ‘erotic’ target for the unprepossessing detective.

Marlowe’s encounters with the principal women in Chandlers’ stories take place almost entirely within the narrow space between the romantic and the erotic. He is a man who attracts women first by his  physical presence, a perception then reinforced by his uncompromisingly masculine/heroic attitude to life –  an irresistible double whammy. From the highly charged sexuality of his one night stand with gorgeous Miss Vermilyea to the extended rise and fall of the foreplay with elusive Betty Mayfield, both in ‘Playback’, Marlowe gets his gal.

Only in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ does Hammett provide any kind of precedent for this- with the incomparable Sam Spade.  Sam starts with his partner’s wife, Iva, virtually flinging herself at him (the implication being that Sam has just ended their affair), continues with the bantering dalliance with his long-suffering  PA, Effie, and then runs headlong into the almost-love-of-his life,  Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  Bedding her, forcing a strip search on her, and blatantly using her as a pawn in his game with the slippery ‘fatman’, Guttman, Sam flirts at the very edge of becoming Brigid’s partner in crime. Then he abandons her to justice.  Above everything, even love, Sam has to find truth in the tangled ‘Falcon’ affair. Moving beyond Brigid’s increasingly desperate (and captivating) pleas, evasions,  lies, and manouevres, Sam finally declares his play, his position, his stake in the game : ‘I won’t play the sap for you’.

Marlowe’s own compulsive ‘seeking’ in the humid shadow of a desirable woman- whatever the consequences- is on clear display in ‘The Long Goodbye’. In the denouement, in front of an anxious, sweaty and reluctant witness, Marlowe uses the full force of his deductive powers to cruel effect.  Eileen Wade, the pale English beauty, is shown to be a ruthless, vengeful and sadistic killer. At the same time Marlowe’s exposition can’t help but demonstrate that she had good reason to become one, and that those reasons almost certainly made her deranged and rendered her ‘unfit’ in the judicial sense. Marlowe presses all of this on her in an almost pathological pursuit of the truth. In the end he leaves this broken woman to the equivalent of the ‘pistol in the study’. Perhaps Chandler recognised the sadistic element in all this which is why the witness is there- as us, the reader, and to signal and acknowledge how uncomfortable this has become.

‘The Long Goodbye’ to me goes beyond the morally redemptive and becomes morally ambiguous with its linking of that single-minded pursuit of justice with jarring sentimentality. Marlowe’s strange devotion to the useless and self-absorbed wreck that is Terry Lennox and their ritual drinking of gimlets is the uneasy flipside to the coin of Eileen’s tragedy.

I’d like to think that Chandler’s move away from his own guidelines was an anticipation of the shift the creative world generally was about to make- a shift to a realisation that there were not just white hats and black hats and that ‘finding out’ was a complex and uncertain affair. Even if the ‘femme fatale’ still bloomed in ever greater numbers and with much less inhibition about showing it than before.


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