Femme Fatale is a slippery and difficult term, but it cannot be avoided because of its ubiquity in discussion of American detective novels and the wider and encompassing concepts of film noir. The connotations of the word relate to the danger of sex, especially the fairer sex. She is a character who is alluring, but deadly. Giving in to her charms is often deadly not simply because that is a distraction from the detective’s “quest”, but because she is in fact his implacable enemy. Her seduction is to make him vulnerable. Fortunately the hard-boiled detective has no vulnerable inner life, their hardness is not a shell.
So far so clear – where is the ambiguity?
Roughly speaking, the ambiguity comes from the conflation of the murderess with the damsel in distress; the logic seems to be that even if she is herself not a danger, she is still a weakness through which he can be attacked. We have therefore got a term which is used for both a perpetrator and a victim, and by conflating them we find all women dangerous. We thus read descriptions of Rachel from Blade Runner absurdly and uncritically positioning her as a femme fatale, despite her singular innocence. I think too that by labelling her as deadly, critics assuage their guilt over her “not-quite rape” by Deckard after she saves his life. Rachel does introduce danger into his life – because she is marked for death and he has come to care for her, in his way. I think we are supposed to accept their “love” as a natural consequence of the genre form, but I think it is also a seldom-mentioned argument for Deckard-as-replicant.
Femme Fatale is not even a facet of the ever-popular Whore/Madonna dichotomy, because we simply have Danger/Danger: all women that have story power are dangerous; just in different ways. There are of course secretaries and second cousins that are as affective as wallpaper.
I have posted before about the odd structure of Red Harvest, how it starts out with what appears to be a quite conventional mystery that is quickly solved, then has a long central section where the Continental Op fosters gang warfare, before finishing up with him on the run, wanted for murder and conspiracy. Each of the three sections has a different emphasis and a different tone, which can make the novel feel disjointed. And I have explained what the origin of that sensation is – in its fragmentary publication. So with that reminder out of the way, we can talk about the real central character of the novel, it’s so-called Femme Fatale, Dinah Brand:
You’ll be disappointed at first. Then, without being able to say how when it happened, you’ll find you’ve forgotten your disappointment… She’s money-mad, all right, but somehow you don’t mind it. She’s so thoroughly mercenary, so frankly greedy, that there’s nothing disagreeable about it.
Albury, who introduces her, has been used up and discarded by her; the latest in a string. As the Op wryly remarks, “She seems to have had everyone on her string at one time or another.” Men are mere objects to her, to be picked up if interesting, used while flush with cash, and then discarded carelessly at the end.
When we are introduced to her, we can’t help but feel the promised sense of disappointment:
She was… about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round hipped body and big muscular legs… her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, and a bit blood shot.
Her course hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was a particularly unbecoming wine colour, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.
This was the Dinah Brnad who took her pick of Poisonville’s men, according to what I had been told.
Hardly sex on legs: this description is far more like a person. I have not gone back to check exact word-counts, but this is also amongst the longest character descriptions in all of Hammett’s writing. Contrast the description the Op gives of Chief Noonan, one of the major crime figures and the person the Op spends the next most time with after Dinah:
Noonan, the chief, was a fat man with a twinkling greenish eyes set in a round jovial face.
Noonan is an indisputably important figure for the structure of the novel – Noonan’s clumsy assassination attempt causes the Op to decide to “clean” Poisonville, he is the Op’s primary cats-paw in fomenting violence in the first half of the novel, and the Op’s betrayal of Noonan at the sit-down of the bosses triggers the novel’s descent into “fear” as described in the beat analysis summary. He gets one line of description, and few characters manage better. Hammett is lavishing descriptive effort on Dinah, and that effort is not primarily geared around making her a sexually desirable object, in the way that you would expect from contemporaneous pulp writers. It is geared around evoking a sense of personality.
By the time we get this description from the Op, Brand has been mentioned 4 times by different people. Nobody else is mentioned as much, not even the Op’s clients. So when Peter Wolfe argues that “[n]obody except the Op stays alive long enough to touch our hearts” we should interpret this as hyperbole to emphasize the number of killings, rather than a cold assessment of the emotional movement inside the novel. Brand is the second most important character in the novel, and is described as its femme fatale without much hesitation – but how deadly is she?
Read on in Part 2, next week.