Femme Noir: The Best Hard-Boiled Novels of the Summer Are All Written by Women

While it's likely the summer of 2012 will be best remembered in the publishing world for the utter domination of 50 Shades of Grey, the erotic trilogy hasn't been the only best-selling surprise this year. That distinction also belongs to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which has now climbed to the top of The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Sellers list.

Gone Girl (Crown) is a riveting novel, a Midwestern noir with completely unreliable narrators. Nick Dunne leaves his house on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary. When he returns a few hours later, he finds signs of a struggle and his wife Amy gone. As the plot twists and turns, switching between Amy's diary entries and Nick's narrative, the novel explores what it means to be married, both on a personal and societal level, as both characters struggle with the changes in each other's personalities, and as familiarity breeds contempt. Nick thinks to himself:

"Over just a few years, the old Amy, the girl of the big laugh and the easy ways, literally shed herself, a pile of skin and soul on the floor, and out stepped the new, brittle, bitter Amy. My wife was no longer my wife but a razor-wire loop daring me to unloop her, and I was not up to the job with my thick, numb, nervous fingers. Country fingers. Flyover fingers untrained in the intricate, dangerous work of solving Amy."

Gone Girl is almost too clever for its own good in the end, but the questions it raises will stick with you. However, Flynn isn't the only woman redefining crime literature this summer. Last month saw the publication of Irish novelist Tana French's fourth book, Broken Harbor (Viking). The tale focuses on Detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy (a minor character in French's last novel, Faithful Place) as he sets out to investigate a brutal triple murder in an abandoned subdivision.

Broken Harbor is both a straightforward crime procedural and a meditation on madness. What causes someone to lose his or her mind? Can a traumatic event spur insanity, or is it simply genetics? What about something as simple as a lack of money? The housing boom and bust figure prominently in the story, as Kennedy discovers his victims were on the verge of bankruptcy:

"Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined. It can nudge a law-abiding citizen onto that blurred crumbling edge where a dozen kinds of crime feel like they're only an arm's reach away. It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that's left is teeth and claws and terror. You could almost catch the stench of fear, dank as rotting seaweed, coming up from the dark space at the back of the closet where the Spains had kept their monsters locked down."

Kennedy is not nearly as compelling a character as some of French's past leads, but Broken Harbor is redeemed by French's masterful prose.

Still, the best noir you'll find this summer takes place in high school, on a cheer squad. Megan Abbott's Dare Me (Reagan Arthur) is a tour de force of sparkling sentences that delve into the sadism inherent in team sports and high school cliques.

Dare Me revolves around the relationship of best friends and cheerleaders Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy. Cassidy is the queen bee of the squad, which takes itself much more seriously than even the cheerleaders in Bring It On. Abbott writes:

"For much of the school year, the rest of the student body views us as something like lacquered lollipops, tiared-princesses, spirit whores, chiclet-toothed bronze bitches. Aloof goddesses unwilling to mingle with the masses.

"But we never care because we know what we are. ...

"At the pep rally they see our swagger, our balls, our badassery. They get to see what we can do, how our bodies are not paperdolls and how our tans are armor.

"How we defy everything, including the remorseless sugar maple floor planks nailed a half-century ago, ten feet below, our bodies tilting, curving, arcing, whipping through the air, fearless."

When a new cheer coach, Colette French, arrives at school, everything changes. Loyalties are divided, power plays ensue, and someone ends up dead. But the thrill of Dare Me is not in the plot, it's in Abbott's writing. What could become cliched in lesser hands is striking and fresh in Abbott's.

Given that noir has for so long been the province of men, it's refreshing to see a new generation of women writers embracing the genre and reshaping it as their own. The femme fatale is alive and well, as these books prove, but she's no longer just an archetype.


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