The Legacy of Black Mask

I heard something the other day that turned my head around full on Exorcist style: Dashiell Hammett said that he based the character of Nora Charles on his lover Lillian Hellman.  That’s like saying Betty Boop was based on Dorothy Parker.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite movies is The Thin Man – that movie had a lot to do with getting me hooked on writing in the first palce – and I’ve always harbored a secret crush on Nora Charles but can you honestly imagine her saying, “Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”

And this is the problem with genre fiction.  Very often a woman like Hellman, a successful playwright, author and aggressive left wing idealist, gets translated into an adorable dingbat like Nora Charles on her way to the page.  You certainly don’t have to scratch very deep in Chandler’s work to find the misogyny.  Just look at the difference between the book and the movie of The Big Sleep.

In the book, there is no love story between Marlowe and Vivien Rutledge.  She’s just another conniving, manipulative woman.  As a female in a Chandler novel, that’s about the best you can hope for.  Otherwise, if not mentally incompetent, you’re either a mannish ice queen or a ruthless killer.  I even winked at this in The Vengeance Season by having one character start out as the mannish ice queen and work her way through the other phases until she ends up a mental incompetent.

It sounds like I’m bagging on Chandler, but I’m really not. The first time I read The Big Sleep in college it was like lightning snapped through my synapses.  Every word on the page elevated what had been a pretty trashy genre to the level of literature.  It was amazing.  It was the first time I didn’t feel guilty for wanting to write genre fiction.  And that misogyny did not enter detective fiction through Chandler.  It was already well established by the time he came along and it continued on long after he died.

Watch Out of the Past or The Killers or especially Double Indemnity and you get right away why the French added the femme fatale as a critical ingredient in any film noir.  Carry that forward to one of the best faux noir ever made, Body Heat, and you find Matty Walker, the finest example of the vicious, self-serving woman so crucial to these stories.

How do you turn that around?  Frankly, I don’t know that you can remove that character from detective fiction entirely.  There is a portion of the genre’s archetypes that couldn’t function without her.  I had the same problem in The Vengeance Season and could never get rid of her completely.  In the end, I made sure the other two female leads were empowered females not looking to suck the life of the nearest man.  Maybe that’s all we need, some more fully developed characters to balance out the sometimes necessary ugly stereotypes.