Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime By Women Writers
(Akashic Books, 2019)
In an era when more and more women are standing up and saying “Enough!” it’s only fitting that Akashic Books (home of the Akashic Noir series) releases this patriarchy-challenging collection of noir by women. Not all of these tales are told from a woman’s perspective, nor are they all presenting a feminist perspective, but most are wonderfully wrought, chilling tales of revenge, redemption, the evil that men do, and just what these women do about it. In her well-crafted introduction to the collection, Joyce Carol Oates considers the nature of noir asking the question “Is there a distinctive female noir?” and whether or not one can even define a “female voice.” For Oates, noir itself is “a sort of (dark) music: a sensibility, a tone, an atmosphere.” She then proceeds to list various artists (Hopper, de Chirico), musicians (Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone), poets (Plath, Wallace Stevens), and of course, films (Touch of Evil , Farewell, My Lovely ). For Oates, noir is not pessimistic but instead “starkly realist, free of romantic illusion” but a vision traditionally male-centered with women’s place “limited to two: muse, sexual object.” Female noir is not simply a shift of writer’s gender but instead, a shift of the gaze from male to female, “suddenly, the male becomes the object of the protagonist’s gaze, which happens to be female.” In Cutting Edge, the female gaze moves beyond a heteronormative binary including two lesbian-centric tales that are some of the best in the collection. In the introduction, Oates also presents a solid summary of literary noir with nods to Raymond Chandler, Samuel Dashiell Hammett, James Mallahan Cain, and the many celluloid classics of the genre; she also highlights the importance of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) as a shift in the construction of female evil, tying this shift to late 20th century feminism. Oates also highlights the traditional construction of monster: male, victim: female so central to much genre fiction and cinematic revenge narratives (Death Wish , Straw Dogs ) and asserts that female noir represents a rewriting of these narratives, one that is “defiantly female, indeed feminist.”
The collection is split into three sections, “Their Bodies, Our Selves,” “A Doom of One’s Own,” and “Manslaying” each with five stories, the final section includes poems from Margaret Atwood. The writers are a mix of literary giants (Atwood, Oates), the celebrated (Aimee Bender, Edwidge Danticat, Sheila Kohler, Valerie Martin, Bernice L. McFadden, S.J. Rozan), and the moderately well-known. Each voice is different, each story providing its own appeal, its own approach to the nature of crime, and in most instances, what it means to live in a female body in a largely hostile world.
Part I “Their Bodies, Our Selves” features five mixed narratives, “One of These Nights” is a harrowing tale of childhood sex abuse and the vicious ways two teenage girls respond to a world rife with threat and sexual competition for their abuser. The menace of male sexuality is evident from the opening description of the abuser’s car: “Mr. Miller’s car is hard and lean and long, with dents all along the side and a giant rusty grille in the front that looks like a monster’s grin.” The car mirrors the man, as the narrator tells us, predator incarnate. But though these girls are victims, that won’t last forever: “He thinks he’s going to make me a woman like he did with Julie…He doesn’t have a clue.” The menace in the final exchange between these two girls, “One of these nights…” is palpable. Mr. Miller is not long for this world.
In “A History of the World in Five Objects,” S. J. Rozan presents a deeply disturbing story in flashback of a young woman shattered by witnessing her father’s violence against her mother; a violence that leaves the unnamed young woman with a life reduced to five objects representing her mother: a gold bracelet (lost), a nightgown (disintegrated), an English ivy plant (recently dead), a yellow plate which breaks at the end of the story, and a knife that she may or may not have used to kill her parents. The story ends tragically but is written with such precision of style and form that the end appears as inevitable. Inevitability is also palpable in Lisa Lim’s “The Hunger,” a story told in black and white images and short, sharp paragraphs. Lilly’s husband (whom she did not love) is dead—murdered—and has left her in an intolerably small apartment with her intolerable mother-in-law. As Lilly reaches the end of her tolerance while chopping oxtail for dinner, the ending again, appears inevitable.
Lucy Taylor’s “Too Many Lunatics” is both an excellent example of an unreliable narrator and an exploration of sisterly love and sibling rivalry. Claudia heads out into an epic snowstorm to try to “save” her substance-abusing, bent on destruction sister Fiona. But Fiona doesn’t want to be saved. And just like any great crime story, not all is as it seems. In a self-explanatory moment, we learn Claudia blames herself for not protecting Fiona from their father; in a crucial moment she was unable to kill him though we feel the 15-year-old Claudia’s rage as “she’s more thrilled than shocked to see her choice is the claw hammer,” a weapon she’s chosen to use on her father because it is “brutally, unequivocally male.” She wonders as she wields the weapon if “this is what men feel when they get a hard-on, when they swagger into a bedroom to fuck.” But she fails in her resolve and this failure leads her to a lifetime of regret and, ultimately, the horrific ending of her tale.
Edwidge Danticat’s “Please Translate” focuses on a mother’s rising panic as she waits for her estranged husband to return their young son. Told through phone messages translated, we’re told, from Haitian Creole to English, the structure of individual short-short-long messages helps show the mother Sauvanne’s rising panic as she realizes she may never see her son again. The deftness with which Danticat writes a mother’s rising anger, panic, and grief is both riveting and heart-wrenching.
The second part of the collection, “A Doom of One’s Own,” opens with Jennifer Morales’s “The Boy Without a Bike.” A woman travels to a remote RV village to visit her former lover whose son’s bike has been stolen. This is domestic realist fiction where the protagonists are lesbian and the monster a racist, homophobic drug dealer who terrorizes his neighbors and his own son. The violence is well-written but ultimately less interesting than the interplay between the women whose relationship is decidedly fraught, and the young boys—both shy, weak, and except for each other, friendless. The second story of the section, Elizabeth McCraken’s “An Early Specimen,” is a beautifully wrought experimental piece that gives nods to Ray Bradbury’s “The Next In Line” (1945), Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode” (1947), and anyone who’s ever been slightly horrified by the contents of natural history museums. As one character says, “That is what happens when you travel. Your bones may end up anywhere.”
Bernice L. McFadden’s “OBF, Inc.” is a male-centric satire of modern American race relations and feels oddly out of place in this collection. It’s hard to be sympathetic to a character who tells us that he loves his car “more than he’d ever loved any woman.” The only woman in the story is a hiring manager, Mrs. Americus, written as a parody of the Southern white bigoted female and she plays it to the hilt. While the critique of modern American racism is obvious (albeit heavy-handed) with the construct of “OBF, Inc.,” ultimately this story out-clevers itself.
Aimee Bender is in characteristic fine form with the lesbian-centered detective noir “Firetown.” Bender’s detective lives in a basement at the bottom of the Capitol Records tower in a Los Angeles that is bone-dry, burning, with air full of smoke. The femme fatale walks into the detective’s office in “clothes whose only job was to telegraph the spending of money.” While there are many of the hallmarks here of a traditional detective-noir, this detective doesn’t fall for any of the “cuteness” exhibited by the femme fatale, instead questioning her motives throughout and ultimately deciding that “a detective must have her limits.”
Steph Cha’s “Thief” is more tragic family drama than riveting noir thriller, featuring a grieving mother who blames her son’s gang-related death on his closest friend; a friend who also steals all the money from the funeral. The mother’s grief is palpable throughout and it is this grief and her rage that carries the narrative forward through to a surprising end.
Part III “Manslaying” opens with one of the strongest stories in the collection, S.A. Solomon’s “Impala.” A young woman steals her foster-by-default father Glen’s Impala to escape the wrath of her gangster boyfriend, a boyfriend she chose to protect her from the “nice boys” at her school who’d gang-raped her. This is a young woman abused both physically and by circumstance: her father is non-existent and her mother left her with an alcoholic, unemployed ex-partner. Her anger is clear: “She hadn’t been asked to be born a girl. She would have preferred to be male. Not because she didn’t feel ‘female.’ But because males were in charge.” As her gangster boyfriend “Panda” becomes more physically and verbally abusive, she makes the decision to leave. Her rage at the inequity of life, at the abuse she has suffered, puts her on the road in Glen’s Impala. When she hits an animal with the car, she blows a tire. But Glen has taught her how to change a tire so in the dark and the rain by the side of the road, she begins to work. Following the trope, a car pulls over and a man gets out and comes over to help. But she senses his intent and that her “‘femaleness’ was being turned against her, used as an instrument of terror.” But this is one young woman who refuses to give in.
Another tale of a woman reclaiming her power, Cassandra Khaw’s “Mothers, We Dream,” is an odd and dark fairy tale about a husband saved from shipwreck by his wife who is clearly not human, “beautiful, exultant, bloody as a messiah, her mouth razored, her eyes utterly absent of light.” Here is a powerful rewriting of the monster: male, victim: female structure with wife as savior-monster who “takes a tithe of flesh” to save her husband from the sea. The following story, Valerie Martin’s “Il Grifone,” starts as a pleasant enough reunion between two couples—friends who have known each other for years—but soon descends into a dark tale of male privilege and the damage done when a husband refuses to believe his wife’s complaints of abuse. In “Miss Martin,” Sheila Kohler presents a tale of revenge that rewrites the daughter versus second wife trope instead giving the Diane (the daughter) and Miss Martin (the second wife) a combined revenge against the father/husband, a man who has “strict ideas of what is right and wrong and often holds forth about the evils of the world,” evils that don’t include his own abuse of the women in his life.
The collection closes with six poems by literary titan Margaret Atwood and a chillingly brutal short story by Oates. Atwood’s poems are graceful, dark, entertaining, and insightful from a “Siren Brooding on Her Eggs” about the death her children will wreak, and “The woman you were certain loved you/did not” who instead had “knives and poisons on her mind,” a Cassandra who declines the gift and disappears “hitching in the dusk,” and finally, an “Update on Werewolves” where the hyper-masculine monster is now a feminized “global threat” singing “freedom, freedom and power!” although they still remain only “middle-management.”
In Oates’s “Assassin” a middle-aged working class woman slides into madness, her radiator whispering “assassin” until she decides to kill the prime minister. She is full of rage against the way of the world “I was meant to be an equal of Dr. S. (for I am educated) but was cheated of my destiny by reason of my sex (female).” But also aware that her invisibility as a middle-aged working class woman makes her a perfect tool for revenge. “You see, no one notices us. This will be our revenge.” And revenge she has in bloodily graphic Oates fashion, ending the collection with the sentiment shared by many in this collection, “I am not taking bloody orders from you, my man, or from any man ever again.”