Ten of the Best Hardboiled Heroines: Dominic Nolan

PAST LIFE author Dominic Nolan tells us about his top ten female protagonists, from the page and the screen.

Posted on March 14, 2019 in Author Recommendations, Guest Author
Tags: Author Content, Crime, Crime books, Dominic Nolan, femme fatale, past life, top ten

JULIE GUILLE (The Blackbirder by Dorothy B Hughes)
Having escaped Occupied France and entered the US illegally via Havana, Julie flees New York after an old acquaintance is killed outside her building. Seeking the mythical Blackbirder, a shadowy figure who can smuggle her across the border to Mexico, she is pursued by the gestapo, the FBI, and her collaborator uncle.
In any other noir, Julie would be the femme fatale; beautiful, enigmatic, independent, she’s a skilful actress who effortlessly slips between roles and identities, and doesn’t mind clonking someone on the head with a flashlight. Weaving her way west across a paranoia-stricken and violent wartime America, she needs these villainous traits to save her own skin.

Bowles’s only novel isn’t crime (even if almost everything that happens is criminal), but its enterprising and gloriously unpredictable heroines are as noir as they come, both seeking salvation by spiralling into self-destruction.
“I am going on a trip. Wait until I tell you about it. It’s terrible.”
So Frieda describes her impending holiday to Central America. Plagued by fears and doubts, she abandons her husband and finds some strange sense of home in the jungle and brothels of Panama.
Moving out of her comfortable home, Christina retreats to an isolated shack on a rundown island outside the city and embarks on nocturnal adventures in the nearest town, opening herself up to encounters in a seedy bar. She explains to a friend, “It is not for fun that I am going, but because it is necessary to do so.”
Unapologetically shaking off any expectations people have of them, the two women are quite serious about their sinning.

JOAN GRAHAM (The Big Steal, d. Don Siegel)
Jane Greer’s cool and smart-mouthed Joan is in Mexico to find her lousy fiancé, Fiske, who scammed a couple of grand from her and vanished. She runs into Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum, repeating their successful partnership from Out of the Past), a Lieutenant accused of stealing a US Army payroll of $300,000. Turns out, Halliday knows Greer’s ex-beau is the real robber, so they team up and go on the road after him.
The movie upends the usual noir mechanics as time and time again it is Joan’s intelligence and ingenuity, rather than Duke’s brawn and bravado, which get the pair out of tight spots. She speaks Spanish, negotiating tricky encounters with locals; she’s behind the wheel for a wild car chase with a furious army captain on their tail; she formulates a plan to sneak them out of a surveilled hotel; and at the picture’s climax, she ploughs into the final fight and even plugs one of the villains.

BREE DANIELS (Klute, d. Alan J Pakula)
A complex and contradictory film, Klute is one of the finest revisionist noirs to come out of 70s Hollywood, and credit for most of that is down to Jane Fonda’s Bree. Although the film is named for Donald Sutherland’s eponymous small-town detective (who arrives in the city to investigate the disappearance of an old friend, who may be a killer of prostitutes), everything in it is focused on Bree. She is the object of the desires/obsessions of both Klute and the killer, but more startlingly, audio from both her therapy sessions and recordings the killer has made of coaxing phone calls with her are used as voiceover, lending the film an extraordinary female voice.
Bree is a model, aspiring actress, and, in-between auditions, a call girl. She revels in her side work as she believes it offers her a degree of control, manipulating the johns (“For an hour, I’m the best actress in the world.”). She is at once independent, and yet dependent on ‘the life,’ using sex to buttress her self-esteem and running to her former pimp for solace and protection. She is a femme fatale and a lost soul. A single city girl and, at the end when she leaves with Klute, maybe a family woman. Though, in the voiceover as we see her departing, she tells her therapist she could never be a country housewife. Bree’s different identities are all at once both authentic and fabricated. She is the contradictions of her time.

AIMÉE JOUBERT (Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette)
Fiction is a strange world, where we can cheer on heroes that would turn our stomachs in this other world of ours. Take Coffin Ed and Grave Digger from Chester Himes’s Harlem Cycle—violent and judgemental cops who wield a state-sponsored, almost fascist, violence in their protecting of order. But they become something like folk-heroes in Harlem, a community with few champions willing to stand up for it.
Aimée Joubert is an even wilder kind of hero. A professional killer, she sees her contract work as an opportunity to rebalance society. Coming to a new town, she targets its rich industrialists, playing off their insatiable thirst for wealth and power to stir up murderous resentment between them. Discretely negotiating with each of them to hire her to kill the other, she takes payment from both, kills everyone, and moves on to another town. A Marxist terrorist in the form of a paid assassin, feeding capitalism to itself chunk by bloody chunk.

NANETTE HAYES (Rhode Island Red and others by Charlotte Carter)
Sexy, sassy, and a noodler on the sax, Nanette lives in a low-rent neighbourhood in New York and gets by on busking and boyfriends’ wallets. When the boyfriend leaves with his wallet, Nan takes in a fellow broke musician who first turns up dead on her kitchen floor with an ice pick in this throat, and then turns out to be an undercover cop, and she becomes an accidental detective to get from under suspicion.
Nan harks back to the tough female leads of 70s Blaxploitation pictures such as Cleopatra Jones, Coffy, and Foxy Brown, but is also a Rimbaud-translating Wellesley graduate with a degree in French with a minor in Music. Picture Grace Jones playing a Diane Keaton role and add murders.

VERONICA MARS (Veronica Mars, created by Rob Thomas)
It was a “teen noir” broadcast on a teen-centric network, but who was more hardboiled than teenage private eye Veronica Mars?
Shunned by her former-friends in her hometown Neptune’s wealthy in-crowd, she works as a secretary-cum-investigator at her former-Sheriff father’s one-man agency, using what she learns to uncover a conspiracy behind her best friend’s apparently-solved murder, locate her runaway mother, and find out what happened at a house party where Veronica was drugged and raped.
Cynical, caustic, and a champion of the working folk in an increasingly class-divided Neptune, it’s no surprise the franchise has been brought back from the dead twice now.

Gran went on to pen an incredible series of meta-mysteries featuring another hardboiled heroine, Claire DeWitt, but the self-proclaimed best detective in the world doesn’t need to be on any list I could draw up.
Joe is a different animal altogether. A recovering heroin addict in 50s New York, she lives in a shoebox room in a hotel for women and pays the rent by selling stolen jewellery to barroom fences. When a wealthy suburban couple offer her a thousand dollars to find their missing daughter, Joe is plunged back into her former world of hustlers, pimps, dealers, and seedy strip clubs. Slumming, stealing, surviving on her wits, Joe’s past is always bubbling up around her and threatening to turn to tragedy.

REE DOLLY (Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell)
Raising her younger siblings whilst looking after her unstable mother in the Ozarks of Missouri, Ree has to search for her father, a meth cook who has disappeared on bail, as he used the family home as bond and it’ll be taken from them if he doesn’t show in court. Seventeen, but already tough as old boots, she has to navigate a closed and clannish hill community who shun the law and settle scores the old way.
The role made Jennifer Lawrence a bone fide Hollywood star in Debra Granik’s fine adaption, but on the page Ree is younger, fuller, fiercer, and queerer. One the one hand, girlishly battling with her longing for her already-married best friend Gail, and on the other standing up to the violence of the law and clan-hierarchy alike, and parenting her two brothers.
She’s a Dolly, bred’n buttered.

KALINDA SHARMA (The Good Wife, created by Robert & Michelle King)
Archie Punjabi, with her knee-high boots and practised inscrutability, made investigator Kalinda a standout character in the early seasons of the show. We didn’t know much about her past, but it was just enough to keep us hooked. We weren’t sure how far she’d cross the line for the firm’s clients, but it was never enough to stop us loving her. Her relationships with Alicia and Will were the backbone of the show (no co-incidence that the show went off the boil when those relationships were scuppered).
A bisexual woman of colour on a major network show could have turned out to be an exercise in box-ticking, but Kalinda was the real deal. Meticulous, ruthless, ambiguous, and never lacking for a plan up her sleeve no matter the situation (nobody who’s seen the show hasn’t thought of plaster-boarding a go-bag into their home).

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