Brigley Thompson, Z. (2010) Intimacy and the femme fatale: trauma, abuse and gender politics in the noir detective story. Paper presented to: Writings of Intimacy in the 20th and 21st Centuries, Loughborough University, England, 10-12 September 2010.
‘Just tell me the truth. I'm not the police. I don't care what you've done. I'm not going to hurt you, but one way or another I'm going to know.’ (Chinatown, Polanski and Towne 1974). Much has been written about the gender politics of the noir detective story, but the intimate relationship between the detective and the femme fatale deserves greater attention. In the noir genre, this relationship is a combative one, where the detective is always questing for intimacy and the femme fatale repels it. Mary Ann Doane confirms this dynamic when she notes that the femme fatale often works as an ‘epistemological trauma’, whose depths must be plumbed or fathomed by the hero. Early versions of the femme fatale in film and fiction are merely another challenge to the detective-hero, but Jack Boozer points out that as the femme fatale develops in movies like Marnie and Chinatown, she becomes associated with the intimate trauma of sexual violence and works to ‘unveil [society’s] brutish aspects through the illumination of her personal disasters’ (Boozer 1999: 24). This paper surveys the development of the femme fatale from classic hard-boiled detective novels to contemporary fiction, considering how the relationship of intimacy between the detective and the heroine serves to uncover a more traumatic kind of intimacy: rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. A classic text is Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel, The High Window, in which, as a knight-protector, Marlowe must delve into the past of the mysterious and man-hating Merle in order to help her to recover from her sexual trauma. Winston Graham’s noir-ish novel, Marnie (1961) features a male hero who forces a criminal, frigid femme fatale to face her sexual trauma, as does the 1964 film version. By the end of these narratives, the femme fatale is no longer a mysterious epistemological trauma; through intimacy with the detective-hero, her secrets are broken open. As sympathetic as such portrayals might be, women are still positioned in these texts as passive victims, incapable of recuperating themselves. There are, however, alternative narratives in contemporary noir fiction. Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep (2009) is ostensibly a novel about sexual exploitation, but reversing the trends of the genre, Abbott poses the sophisticated noir hero, Joe Lannigan, as a fatal seducer, an epistemological trauma like the femme fatale. Rather than relying on the knight-detective, Abbott's heroine must save herself from the fatal intimacies of sexual abuse and exploitation. This alternative narrative suggests that the femme fatale is no longer a token to be exchanged and fought over by men, but an autonomous being creating her own narrative of healing and recuperation