Femme Fatales: Femme and A Dame To Kill For


By Bill Pronzini

Book Cover: FemmeAh, Bill Pronzini. You were one of my early introductions to pulp mysteries, and I have a lot of left-over affection for you, but I’m afraid I may have outgrown your nameless detective.

I hadn’t read a Bill Pronzini novel in at least 15 years, but I ran across this very short novella in the new releases shelf at the library and picked it up, as I do love a femme fatale! I also had very fond memories of Pronzini’s nameless detective series from high school; they are somewhat run-of-the-mill novels, but are told in first person by a detective who is never named (I was also at the time watching Clint Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name” series, so it was a bit of a theme).

I read Femme in the space of one delayed flight, so probably over 3 hours total, and it was the fluffiest of fluff. I have a bit of a problem with novellas, actually. Whereas authors seem to put extra effort into short stories to be concise and compact as independent entities, novellas have a tendency to just come off as reading like general outlines for a future novel, and this one was no exception.

The plot, characters, and setting were quite generic, which is especially problematic when it comes to a femme fatale. A woman who uses her very femininity to lure men to death and destruction really needs to stand out. This particular femme seemed no different than the average murderess on any given Law & Order episode. I get that it is more difficult to make violence stand out in this modern age, but that’s what makes writing a femme fatale such a challenge.

Now, if you want someone who is up to that challenge:

A Dame To Kill For

By Frank Miller

Book Cover: A Dame to Kill ForFrank Miller’s A Dame To Kill For is the basis for the new Sin City movie coming out next year, and coincidentally the only Frank Miller graphic novel that Rebecca owns. I really enjoyed the first Sin City movie and was torn over whether to read the graphic novel for the second one, and thereby “spoil” it for myself, but finally decided that part of the fun of the movie is seeing what a brilliant job it does of bringing to life each individual illustrated panel. (I saw in a “making of Sin City” that they actually used the graphic novel as the original story boards for the movie, which makes a lot of sense, given Frank Miller’s very cinematic style.)

While it is no spoiler that Frank Miller loves a femme fatale (or ten), I’m going to go ahead and spoil this particular book (and upcoming movie), so proceed with caution. Continue reading

The Fabulous Clipjoint

By Fredric Brown

Let’s talk a little bit about Pulp Mysteries. I LOVE them, even though they are deeply offensive by most of today’s standards, and the mindset of a hardboiled detective is about as far from my own as it is possible to be.

Book Cover: The Thin ManI was first introduced to them in high school, when my family went through a phase of watching movies from the 40s, including The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Thin Man. I went from there to reading Dashiell Hammett, who I absolutely love, and a little Raymond Chandler, who threw around the n-word enough to make me too uncomfortable to read most of his books.*

For a while, I looked for contemporary authors who also used the hardboiled style, and found Robert B. Parker (entertaining fluff that my mom accurately criticized for never allowing his characters to grow), Bill Pronzini (who has a nice gimmick of having a narrating detective who is never given a name), and my then favorite Joseph Hansen (featuring a gay insurance investigator who is as tough and stoic as any Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe).

Book Cover: Detective DuosSeveral years ago I picked up a collection of short stories titled Detective Duos, and was introduced to Fredric Brown’s Ed and Am Hunter, who immediately supplanted all other pulp mysteries in my heart forever. He wrote seven novels and one short story about the detective pair, all of which were published between 1947 and 1963 and are currently out of print, as far as I know. Tracking down each precious copy might have added just a little bit to my love of the series. (Much thanks to my wonderful sister for finding the seventh and rarest novel for me as a Christmas present a few years ago!)

In my opinion, Fredric Brown has not gotten the recognition he deserves as an author in any genre, though he is more known in the science fiction genre. I haven’t actually read any of those, but my impression is that they fit in fairly well with other contemporary science fiction novels, while his pulp mysteries really stand out from the rest.

The first book of the series, The Fabulous Clipjoint, introduces us to Ed Hunter, who is just 18 and teams up with his uncle, Ambrose “Am” Hunter, to solve the murder of his father. They live in gritty noir-ish Chicago, and feel the bitterness and cynicism of every other pulp detective, but Brown writes them with honesty and vulnerability that makes them more relatable and likeable than any other pulp mystery characters I’d read. I knew this book was something special when Ed makes a speech about wanting to have a drink of whiskey in honor of his dad, downs a hefty shot of whiskey, and promptly throws up.

Funny story, though: My first copy of The Fabulous Clipjoint ended with a plot dead-end with the detectives stumped, and I was a little taken aback but impressed at Brown’s moxie at showing that real-life mysteries don’t always end in tidy packages. Then, I ran across another copy in a used book store, and realized that my first copy was missing the last third of the book. The actual ending isn’t as bravely unusual, but is a lot more satisfying as a reader.

*Rereading The Fabulous Clipjoint, there are more casual racial slurs than I’d remembered, which is very unfortunate. They never actually describe a specific character, which is something of a poor salve for my conscience, but one I have to hang on to or else quit pulp mysteries forever.