June 4, 2024

femme fatales

James M. Cain had a talent for creating compelling characters in his stories. They are intelligent, ambitious, impulsive, and inscrutable. They have big plans, but we don’t know quite what they are. We can tell that they have moral compasses, but it is never exactly clear how those compasses work. We immediately sense that they will be taking us somewhere, and we have no clue where that might be.

These characters are powerful engines for storytelling, driving action and unpredictability. Every second spent with them is fully engrossing because it presents a puzzle to solve at all times. His secondary characters are equally smart and mysterious, a natural source of drama as motivations change alignment. Notably, all of this does not just apply to the men. Cain’s stories are filled with strong female characters who have their own big plans, and do things on their own terms.

Joan subverts the idea of a trapped and helpless mid-20th century housewife in The Cocktail Waitress. A single mother, once abused by an alcoholic husband, she fights for the future of her son, thrives at her new job, preys on the feelings and lust of men, and potentially kills not one, but two husbands and a lover.

Carrie in The Root of His Evil ruthlessly rises from poverty to prosperity as she strives for power.

Phyllis in Double Indemnity ensnares an insurance salesman to help murder her husband, apparently not her first victim.

Jane in Jealous Woman has a masterful poker face, apparently two dead husbands on her hands, an insurance broker wrapped around her finger, and a huge insurance payout in her pocket. It is her game of roulette and the men around her are trapped in it.  But is she really a murderer?

June in Love’s Lovely Counterfeit is a successful political advisor, who coolly and efficiently exacts revenge on Ben Grace when he betrays her.

Like all great noir writers, Cain fills his novels with enigmatic femme fatales. However, unlike many of his peers, Cain gives these women a voice, often having them tell their own stories – though whether we can trust what they tell us is another question…

“So what’s the fly in the ointment, and why am I taping this? It’s in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after—always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a ‘femme fatale’ who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn’t be proved. Unfortunately, they can’t be disproved either, at least in a court of law, for as long as the papers say “it is alleged,” you can’t sue anyone. All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell. I don’t look forward to it, but if that’s how it has to be, it’s how it has to be.”

– The Cocktail Waitress