Anyone who follows me on social media is by now probably overly familiar with the fact that I am taking a class on film noir this semester. I've been watching classic Hollywood films my entire life, and I've always loved the dark and broody films noirs, with their emotionally unavailable protagonists and surrealistically beautiful femmes fatales. I think I sort of knew in an ill-defined way that a significant amount of these films were adapted from early to mid century crime novels, and clearly the figure of the "hard boiled" detective that structures both traditions has become such an fixture in the American cultural imagination that one need not take a class to know that the genre is, in some ways, fundamentally masculinist in nature.
Except that, well, it isn't. Like so many other literary histories, the history of mid century crime fiction was written as though women had no substantial contribution to genre formation or the works that comprised the crime fiction canon. The reasons for the effacement of women's crime writing are most likely multiple and beyond demonstration. In her online introduction to the Library of Amerca's new box set WOMEN CRIME WRITERS: EIGHT SUSPENSE NOVELS OF THE 1940S AND 50S, editor Sarah Weinman suggests that part of the reason women crime writers are missing from the histories is because their novels were often published in hardcover, never making it into circulation the way the contemporaneous dime store pulp novels written by their male peers did. It's possible too that as the boundaries of the genre were formed, women's stories--which tended to focus more on the anxieties and betrayals that saturate domestic life--just didn't seem in keeping with the macho adventures of Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. As a result, these "domestic suspense" novels (and their adaptations) got shuffled into adjacent genres--the melodrama, the woman's film, etc.
There is a lot to be said about the ways in which the female voice has been suppressed over time, whether through genre formation that excludes it by definition or by film adaptations that elide it for "narrative" purposes (as was the case with Laura, which I explore in my Pop Matters review), and indeed feminist literary and film critics have been saying a lot about it over the last thirty years. That such recuperative projects are still going on today is evidence that there is still a lot of excavation of lost or ignored works to be done, not only by women by all the demographics that have found themselves on the outside of a canon looking in. Because the truth is that their effacement not only affects women, who are deprived of a cultural history with which they can identify, but it affects our entire understanding of the American literary traditions, its themes, and the social anxieties that shaped it.
Too long; didn't read -- Read crime fiction written by women. The Library of America's box set is a good place to start. You can read my review of it for Pop Matters here.
In other news, last week's review of Empire can be found here as well.
I've got more book reviews coming up for Pop Matters, as well as a review of the box set of Charlie Chaplin's Essanay comedies. Stay tuned.