I was trying to come up with something punchy for Twitter the other day--I have no natural gift for concision--along the lines of "noir is a mystery where the woman is the crime."
I've written my fair share of these stories, which, in honor of Ellroy, I think of as my cherchez la femme tales. But it isn't just me--and thank God, given how dire it would be to read my psychoanalysis of myself. Inscrutable women whose concealed desires and agendas simultaneously frustrate and tantalize are a near-constant of the genre, in takes both feminist and otherwise. (Gender-changed versions, like Vicki Hendricks's seamy and superb Miami Purity, are still comparatively rare.) I don't object to the black-hearted bottle blonde of old--in fact, I can be quite fond of her--but it's been incredible to see authors like Megan Abbott writing novels where women, too, are transfixed by the unrevealed minds of women, and sometimes even by their own.
The pure mystery is all about the art of interpretation: the major action is over before the story begins, and the detective mostly serves not as protagonist but as critic, decoding what truth is available and deciding on some resonant meaning. That interpretive work makes up the plot. Crime fiction, especially noir, often eschews this approach--its characters may be doomed, but their doom is driven by their own choices and created within the space of the novel itself. But they're drawn to the woman--like moths to a flame, sure, but also like the apes to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. She's been here before. She's already thinking something. I know I can't trust her, but if I go along with her, she'll take me to some rarefied state of being. I'm tough enough. I'm smart enough.
They never are. Noir is also a mystery where the detective is a failure.
There are all kinds of depressing reasons why "the woman" is the crime--why, to some extent, her having her own inner life at all is viewed with intense suspicion--but I think this trend persists, and is worked and reworked with love and fascination by women and men both, because of one in particular. Effectively, while sexism means that everyone, regardless of gender, is implicitly asked to fit a certain proscribed image--which may be easy for them or may be staggeringly difficult--women, specifically, are handed a cookie-cutter designed to trim off any overt expression of anger, resentment, and callousness. Even certain kinds of lust and longing get chopped off to fit the requested shape. Society asks women to leave all that on the cutting room floor; noir suggests that maybe women just fold it all up inside themselves or that, at any rate, all that cutting leaves blood somewhere, or will before it's all over.
I'm drawn to that. I know my own swallowed-down feelings, after all. Noir appeals to me in part because it acknowledges all that and even makes it central, and because my own sensibilities are dark enough and gruesome enough that I'd rather be a crime than get indulgently smiled at and told I'm a mystery. All that action, all those choices, all that desire. To end with a bad joke, say what you will about crimes, at least they're committed.