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When I think of classic noir and crime fiction writers, I’ve always imagined them not unlike the protagonists they wrote about. Hunched over a desk, soaked in sweat, with a cigarette between their lips and a bottle of whiskey at hand. (Or have I just described all writers in our mind’s eye?) A flurry of names come to mind: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich. All men, like the detectives that you may be picturing now.

But there were many women from that era writing noir and I believe we would be remiss to ignore them. I’d like to introduce you to three of them along with their most famous works:

Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes (1904 – 1993) wrote more than a dozen crime novels in addition to her career as a journalist. She’s best known for her 1947 novel, In a Lonely Place, that thrusts the reader into the mind of Dix Steele, a broken man doing his best to seem normal and charming. But inside lurks a monster. He’s a serial rapist and murderer, though he claims to be an author working on a crime novel. He is friends with the very detective assigned to catch him. Hughes was a master at the hard-boiled prose we’ve come to expect from the genre’s top writers. (In 1950 it was turned into a film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, though the film differs from the novel in several key ways.)

Vera Caspary

Vera Caspary

Vera Caspary (1899 – 1987) wrote short stories, novels, plays, and screenplays. Her most famous novel, Laura, began life as a screenplay, then turned into a novel, which was later adapted to a film of the same name. The plot revolves around the brutal murder of a New York advertiser, the titular character, the men who loved her, and the detective assigned to the case who finds himself falling in love with the dead beauty. Caspary didn’t just write Laura as another femme fatale, but as a strong, independent, and successful woman. She said in her autobiography, “In another generation, perhaps the next, equality will be taken for granted. Those who come after us may find it easier to assert independence, but will miss the grand adventure of having been born in this century of change.”

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) wrote the novel Strangers on a Train, which many don’t realize was a novel before it was a film by Alfred Hitchcock. It begins with the meeting of architect Guy Haines and Charles Bruno. Guy is going to divorce his wife, Miriam, and tells Bruno of his plan. Bruno has his own plan: to trade murders — Guy to murder Charles’ father, and Charles to murder Guy’s wife. Haines thinks Bruno is insane but soon finds Miriam murdered. Thus begins the tangled plot of a cold and calculating novel, filled with unsympathetic characters.

Highsmith lead a troubled life. She battled alcoholism, was anti-Semitic and racist, and kept voluminous diaries exploring these issues and more. Through it all, she channeled her experiences into her work, leaving us with memorable and chilling characters.

Leigh Brackett

Leigh Brackett

I realize I said three but I’m going to add in one more as a bonus. Leigh Bracket (1915 – 1978) was known for her dozens of science fiction novels and short stories—as well as her script work on Empire Strikes Back. She was called in by William Faulkner to co-write the screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep. Many years later she wrote the screenplay for another of Chandler’s stories, The Long Goodbye.

These women brought a unique point of view to their work, writing with satirical wit and subverting many of the negative tropes of a genre dominated by men. They have gone toe-to-toe with the classic writers of their day and come out as equals, paving the way for many of the women that write in the genre today: Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Denise Mina, to name a few.

If you’re a fan of noir and crime fiction, I highly recommend you read their work.


From Modern Noir Master Tom Piccirilli
What Makes You Die by Tom PiccirilliScreenwriter Tommy Pic fell hard from Hollywood success and landed in a psychiatric ward, blacked out from booze and unmedicated manic depression. This is not the first time he’s come to in restraints, surrounded by friends and family who aren’t there.

This time, though, he also awakes to a message from his agent. The first act of his latest screenplay is their ticket back to the red carpets. If only Tommy could remember writing it. Trying to recapture the hallucinations that crafted his masterpiece, he chases his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop downstairs, and the Komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut one Christmas Eve. The path to professional redemption may be more dangerous than the fall.

…This is what makes you die.

Order What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli


Gary B. Phillips stares into the void.Gary B. Phillips is a writer and software developer living in Arizona with his beautiful wife, two daughters, three cats, and four chickens. The sun and heat don’t agree with him and he dreams of what it would be like to live in the Pacific Northwest.

 

He writes horror, science-fiction, and fantasy stories and is currently working on a YA Horror novel. Find him and his work online at his blog, How Dull the Wretch, or Twitter @garybphillips.

 

He enjoys reading, writing third person bios, and staring off into the void as his picture is taken. He has no plans to shave his beard until the novel is done.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Despite her personal demons, Patricia Highsmith was a trailblazer. I highly recommend her Ripley novels and short fiction. Fans should read Andrew Wilson’s haunting 2008 biography of Highsmith, “Beautiful Shadow.”

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