A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, edited by Megan Abbott
If there's one thing in this world that I'm sure of, it's that any project with Megan Abbott's name on it may as well be stamped with the damn Good Housekeeping Seal. Well, maybe -- if that Seal was sepia-toned and smeared with a few bloody fingerprints, and if the woman throwing it into her shopping cart had dark circles under her eyes, and a few darker secrets behind them.
The noir world is scattered with the corpses of pretty young things, femme fatales, and brassy, boozy hellcats, mostly portrayed in thin, played-out sketches, mostly by men. Abbott's work (Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin) has consistently turned these stock noir caricatures on their heads, and the exceptional work collected in A Hell of a Woman does that, and then some.
The section headings that situate the collection's 24 stories draw upon these character types ("Minxes, Shapeshifters and Hothouse Flowers," "Housewives, Madonnas and Girls Next Door," "Gold-Diggers, Hustlers and B Girls," "Working Girls, Tomboys and Girls Friday," and "Hellcats, Madwomen and Outlaws); however, if you think you know these women, you don't. The greatest joy of this collection is watching each author defy conventions of the genre, and create characters that are fresh and unique, yet quintessentially noir.
The book's contributors are a varied bunch, from critically acclaimed veterans like Sandra Scoppettone, Ken Bruen, and SJ Rozan to relative newcomers like Lisa Respers France and Sarah Weinman; however, there's nary a dud to be found. I found myself lingering over each story, and thinking about them, sometimes uneasily, as I fell asleep.
Particular standouts include "Blue Vandas" by Lynne Barrett, a terrific Hollywood whodunit about bit actresses, bigshot producers, and a lowly gardener who learns more about the seedy underbelly of show business than she'd bargained for. If you're a fan of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
"Cherish" by Alison Gaylin, the story of a mentally ill movie theatre usher and her unhinged obsession with a movie star is unforgettably disturbing, and made more so by its knockout twist of an ending.
However, the book's best plot twist comes in Donna Moore's "Bumping Uglies," about a purse snatcher who discovers a murder plot in a Prada handbag. When she decides to blackmail the purse's owner, things get delightfully nasty.
And then just when it looks like the fun is over, there's more. The book's appendix includes 36 odes to the women of noir -- actresses, characters, and authors. There are some well-known inclusions like Phyllis Dietrichson, the iciest blonde ever to hatch an insurance scheme, and Patricia Highsmith, but also some obscure and overlooked gems, such as noir writers Delores Hitchens and Helen Nielsen, both of whom I'm now eager to track down.
Busted Flush Press has a real winner in A Hell of a Woman -- it's simply one of the strongest, tightest fiction collections I've read in a very long time.