HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Happy Saturday! And we have a special treat for you. A virtual panel on--what else—femmes fatales!
The participants in this discussion are the authors of some of the stories in Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best), a new anthology of crime and mystery short stories by members of the New York/ Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. The moderator, Elizabeth Zelvin, also served as editor of the anthology.
The panelists’ stories are:
“Levitas” by Roslyn Siegel
“Taking the Brooklyn Bridge Back” by Ellen Quint
“Blood on the Floor” by Mary Moreno
“Me and Johnny D” by Ronnie Sue Ebenstein
“Death Will Finish Your Marathon” by Elizabeth Zelvin
New York Bad Girls: Not Always Femmes Fatales
Liz: I’ll start by saying that Where Crime Never Sleeps includes a great variety of stories, but these particular authors were asked to participate in the discussion of bad girls and femmes fatales because all of them chose killers as their protagonists. Let’s start by asking them: What makes a woman a femme fatale?
Roz: It seems to me there has always been this vicious archetype stretching back to the Sirens in the Odyssey, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Eve. Eventually this archetype morphs into the vamp, a demon who unleashes a sexual hunger in men that they are unable to control.
Ronnie: A femme fatale uses sex, or the promise of sex, to trap a man—for money, power, to right a wrong—or just because she can. She’s the human incarnation of the black widow spider, luring her victim into her web and killing and eating her prey, or at least eating up his assets.
Ellen: My understanding of a femme fatale is a mysteriously attractive, seductive woman who draws in others to do her bidding. Whoever she has her sights on will inevitably end up used up or dead.
Ronnie: I always picture femmes fatales as dead ringers for the women on the covers of Fifties pulp fiction books: half-undressed, all scarlet lips and writhing hips, always ready to go. Even the words femme fatale sound glamorous, if traitorous.
Mary: Remember Matty Walker, the character played by Kathleen Turner in the 1981 movie Body Heat? She’s a great example of a femme fatale—a woman so irresistibly sexy she can convince a man to commit murder for her.
Roz: To me, the most interesting aspect is that the fatal woman is always the predator, the aggressor, who corrupts these completely innocent men for no reason at all, and the men don’t have any responsibility for any immoral actions that she may unleash. If they rape, plunder, murder, it’s not their fault. They are the victims. The real aggressor projects his own faults onto a woman he can blame for his own misdeeds, saying, “She made me do it.”
Ronnie: How come we almost never see the term homme fatal to describe a man on the make? Probably because if a man has money or power, he doesn’t need to use sex to get what he wants. Doesn’t seem fair.
Liz: Are there “bad girls”who are different from femmes fatales?
Roz: To me, a bad girl is a woman who doesn’t play by the traditional rules of society. She makes her own rules. She’s the kind who doesn’t wear a bra, gets arrested at political protests, might take a job as a fireman—excuse me—firefighter. She doesn’t limit her sexual relations to her partner but feels free to explore other relationships. In general, she follows her own appetites and inclinations, even if some people see them as excessive or immoral.
Ronnie: You can’t be both a femme fatale and a plain Jane, so a fade-into-the-woodwork girl, even if she’s evil incarnate, can’t make it as a femme fatale.
Mary: An ordinary bad girl might just commit the murder herself. She might not be sufficiently devious to draw someone else into her web, or she might just want to get the job done efficiently, without relying on outside resources.
Liz: I think true bad girls are more independent, more feminist than femmes fatales. It’s not all about seducing or manipulating men. It’s about doing what they please and getting what they want. But what’s the difference between a bad girl and a good girl?
Mary: Who’s to say what differentiates a bad girl from a good girl? I think if we are the least bit interesting, we all have a bit of both in us.
Ronnie: That plain Jane I mentioned can still be mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. And then look out for the transformation from wallflower to wicked avenger. Every good girl done wrong is a bad girl just waiting to get free. I think a bad girl would rather regret what she does than what she doesn’t do. You might say the bad girl has balls, and the good girl doesn’t.
Roz: A good girl follows instructions and fulfills expectations that authorities, religious leaders, community leaders, parents, and husbands have laid out. She makes the best casserole for church suppers and wins first prize for her American Beauty rose. She has the cleanest car of all the soccer moms. She doesn’t drink to excess or have affairs. She does not surprise, but she does not disappoint.
Mary: Then there are those of us who write crime and mystery. Personally, I own up to an evil streak that allows me to imagine doing terrible things to people who annoy me. Fortunately, I only do them on paper. I was raised to be a good girl. Educated by nuns who beat it into me. No wonder I murder people for fun.
Liz: Tell us something about your protagonists. How would you categorize them on the spectrum we’ve been talking about: good to bad to fatal?
Ronnie: C.C. Green comes across as the epitome of good. At first. She’s pushed from sad-sack goody two-shoes to hell-hath-no-fury when denied the one thing she craves: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She has the smarts to do what it takes to get even and get it all. Without getting caught.
Mary: My protagonist, Delores, is a good girl—gentle, insecure, perhaps a bit naïve—but she has a strong sense of self-preservation, and when pushed too far, she will push back. So don’t threaten her.
Ellen: My protagonist is an anti-femme fatale. She is mousy and insecure, a woman who finds herself in a very bad situation by virtue of her need to please others. While she has done some naughty things, she is the ultimate good girl.
Roz: Anabell starts out as a bad girl, turns into a good girl for many years. and finally advances to fatal, but she is not a femme fatale in the usual sense. She has a motive for her murderous act. She is not a demon in disguise.
Liz: Roz, what about the fact that you picked a woman whom many would call “elderly” as your protagonist? What were you thinking when you made the decision to break that stereotype?
Roz: I suppose Anabell does break the femme fatale stereotype in terms of age. She is still sexually active at 75 and attractive enough to ignite passion in her former lover. But her circumstances limit her possibilites and turn her into a killer. I am about the same age as she is, and I have lots of friends in circumstances similar to hers. So often we are treated by younger people as if we have no power and are of little consequence in society. I wanted to show that there is a lot of life in this little old lady and others like her, and you dismiss her at your peril.
Liz: All your stories deal in some way with sexism, gender discrimination, and the objectification of women. Is there anything you’d like to say about that?
Ronnie: I would say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Sexism and gender discrimination are still with us. Though there are cracks in the glass ceiling, the brainy girl continues to cause resentment. And what of her polar opposite, the femme fatale? The pointy bra may be history, but beauties with pouty lips and cat’s eyes still rule the world of fashion and film. No surprise. Sexy sells, and who wouldn’t want to be Jessica Rabbit, bad girl object of desire, if only for a little while?
Liz: In your story, Ronnie, your character is hired specifically because she isn’t Jessica Rabbit. They think she won’t set off the boss who can’t keep his hands to himself. We won’t tell potential readers what happens, but it’s unexpected.
Roz: I never start with the idea of delivering a message, although it seems I end up with one. I create a protagonist who attempts to take control of her life and follow her as she confronts the roadblocks in her way. I suppose my real message is that women who live in this world need to learn how to manipulate it to their advantage.
Liz: What made you pick a killer rather than a sleuth as your protagonist?
Mary: I suppose I think that killers are more interesting than sleuths. As a writer I enjoy delving into the mind of the criminal. What’s disconcerting is that I often find it so easy to go down that dark tunnel. Of course the sleuth needs to do this as well in order to solve the crime. But within the context of the story, we all know who the sleuth is. I enjoy keeping people guessing about which character is the criminal.
Ronnie: Your sleuth can have a few flaws—maybe she drinks too much, he misses alimony payments or hates dogs—but the sleuth is a shining star, out to defend Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The killer protagonist has more layers, more reasons for going over to the dark side. You do have to love your protagonist, even if she is a candidate for the electric chair, and I see C.C.’s crimes as—almost—justified, so I confess I’m glad she gets away with murder. That being said, I wouldn’t want to come across her—and cross her—in real life.
Ellen: I have written from the sleuth’s perspective in other stories. But the beauty of a short story is it allows the writer to go down different paths and experiment with different points of view. Exploring the question of what would drive an ordinary woman to commit an act of violence provides an interesting journey for writer and reader.
Roz: When I chose The National Arts Club as the focus of the crime, I saw Anabell as a symbol of the institution itself, past her prime, but drawing on her former glory, still a player. And I consider Anabell both a killer and a sleuth. She is an archaeologist, a sleuth who digs deep inside her own past to rediscover her bad girl side. Then she harnesses that power to kill her lover.
Liz: Could you have set your story anywhere except in New York?
Mary: No. My story is set in the world of music, and New York is the capital of music, with Carnegie Hall its shimmering pinnacle of achievement.
Ronnie: Girls with high hopes and big dreams head for one of two places: Hollywood or New York. You don’t move to Tinseltown hoping to exploit your PhD. New York City would attract a girl like C.C., whose assets are cerebral, not corporeal. My East Coast bias aside, C.C.’s PhD thesis—“John Davison Rockefeller Jr., Master Builder, and New York’s Dreaming Spires”—means this story could not take place anywhere but the canyons of Manhattan.
Ellen: I got the idea for this story walking over the Brooklyn Bridge—a journey I have taken hundreds of times. But every time, I am in awe of how over 130 years ago, Roebling had a vision of a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. And we are still walking over that bridge, marveling at the structure. The Brooklyn Bridge is not just a setting for the story, it is the thread that ties the story together.
Roz: “Levitas” is a quintessential New York story. Where else is finding an affordable apartment such a desperate, all-consuming matter that devoted residents would rather kill than move away? I know many people who daily read the obits in order to find an apartment that might be available. “Levitas” is fiction, but it tells the truth hidden in the hearts of many New Yorkers.
Liz: Any further comments?
Mary: When I reached my late teens, my mother told me to stay away from musicians. “They are dangerous,” she said. With this story, I prove her correct. Yet I still spend a lot of time with musicians. I find them irresistible!
Liz: I suspect the subtext of Mary's comment is that good girls enjoy being bad girls—at least part time. Especially in Manhattan, where we don't have so many of Roz's soccer moms and American Beauty roses. Maybe it's less of a stretch for a good girl to take on bad girl traits in New York.
Ronnie: At the end of the day, I would rather break bread with a femme fatale than with Mother Theresa. Who has the more fascinating story to share? The bad girl, every time.
HANK: Such fun to read this! And a real master class in Femmes fatales. Readers, do you agree?
Elizabeth Zelvin, editor of Where Crime Never Sleeps, is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and been nominated three times for the Agatha and twice for the Derringer. Visit her at www.elizabethzelvin.com and on Facebook.
Ronnie Sue Ebenstein is the co-author of three beauty books, including a #1 New York Times bestseller. While serving as assistant Beauty Editor at Cosmopolitan during the reign of the legendary Helen Gurley Brown, she wrote features topics ranging from snagging a man to setting up an aquarium.
Mary Moreno is a New York City author, composer, and songwriter and a recipient of various fellowships and awards. Much of her fiction combines her passion for music with her love of mystery. Although she’s never actually killed anyone, Mary does wake up just about every morning thinking about new ways to commit murder.
Ellen Quint coaches professionals in how to succeed in leadership roles. Her work takes her around the globe, but all roads lead back to Brooklyn. Ellen is a judge for the Audies, the annual awards for audio books, and her reviews can be found in AudioFile magazine. Visit Ellen on her blog, www.authorspottingnyc.com, where she keeps followers in touch with author readings in the New York area.
Roslyn Siegel has held senior editorial positions at Big Five publishing houses. Her articles and book reviews have appeared such periodicals as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Publisher’s Weekly. She writes the Emily Place mysteries, set at the New York fashionista’s favorite discount shoe store, where there are always shoes to die for.