Sam Spade in lipstick and a dress

This is a piece explaining The Polka Dot Girl which I wrote for the Evening Herald last Saturday:


The classic noir-style detective story always features a femme fatale: gorgeous but deadly dames whose loyalties are questionable, who’d as soon stick a switchblade in your back as kiss your face. The wise-cracking hero, with his trench-coat and ever-present cigarette, desires and fears her at the same time. The femme fatale is a human black widow.

When I came to write my take on the noir mystery, I decided to bring this one step further – and fill the book with (potentially) fatal femmes. All the characters in The Polka Dot Girl are women.

That’s right: every one. The homicide detective, Eugenie Auf der Maur, investigating the murder which opens the novel. The coroner and patrol cops at the scene. The fearsome de facto ruler of Hera City (my invented setting for the story). Genie’s fellow detectives, their bosses, their bosses’ bosses. The psychopathic assassin who uses an extendable steel baton to kill. The local mobster who runs gambling and dodgy nightclubs. The hired guns and heavy muscle, forensics experts and psychologists, lawyers and judges, politicians and priests.

And yes, the femme fatale: Cassandra the wonder woman, an angel come down to earth – or maybe a devil in disguise.

They’re all women, which makes The Polka Dot Girl pretty unique in literature; certainly, I’ve never come across a novel like this before, but I stand open to correction. And there’s an added twist of spice in the genre itself: these aren’t a bunch of girls hanging out, being nice and placid and, you know, girly.

They’re bad-ass and kick-ass and evil and brave and ruthless and self-sacrificing. All the things you get in a great noir story, but filtered through a feminine prism. As the book blurb has it, this is Sam Spade in lipstick and a dress.

That was kind of the whole point, I think, in writing a book with only female characters, set in a fictitious all-women universe. You’d always be hearing about the lack of good female roles in, for instance, cinema: famous and well-regarded actresses constantly bemoan the paucity of decent jobs, especially when you’re not young and pretty.

But even then, women get the short straw. They’re usually reduced to ciphers: the girlfriend, the supporting act, the victim, the sex object. Hardly ever are they given really complex, interesting, believable and challenging parts to work with.

There’s even a thing called the Bechdel Test: to pass it, a movie must have a scene where two or more women have a conversation about something other than men. Not many films pass the test.

Virtually the only movies where women are the main characters are sappy melodramas, and maybe they don’t want to do those kinds of stories. Not every woman wants to make them, and definitely not every woman is interested in them. Lots of women love action and suspense and violence.

Books are better when it comes to gender balance, but not wonderful either. Much literary fiction, for instance, either ignores women for tedious, up-their-own-bottom explorations of self-indulgent male academics, or ghettoises them in those self-consciously arty novels about six generations of an Indian family, or what-have-you.

Crime fiction is better yet – the field has a lot of female writers, at any rate – but again, most of the heroes are male, as are their associates and the villains. In fairness, this probably reflects the real world of crime and punishment fairly well, but still: I wanted to do something nobody else had done, and populate an entire mystery novel with women.

I read yet another interview with a Hollywood star lamenting the lack of good female characters, and thought, fine: I’ll create something with nothing but women, and see what happens.

The Polka Dot Girl isn’t a pastiche or a spoof; there’s no post-modern winking at the audience, no in-jokes about the fact that there aren’t any men; it’s all played out totally straight. (Actually, there are two or three in-jokes, but they’re so understated, I’m probably the only person who’ll get them.)

It does pay homage to classic noir stories, for sure, with all the requisite elements of that genre: the aforementioned list of characters, and also a serpentine plot, outlandish deeds, larger-than-life feel, a mystical-religious undertone. But it’s its own book, with its own style, taking place in its own world.

Hera City is a hermetically sealed universe. It’s never explained, as such; there’s no back-story, no historical background, no quasi-scientific explanation for how a society of women can evolve, have children and so on. And although all relationships are between two women, there’s no homosexuality per se, because there are no men, so there’s no heterosexuality.

These women just do, and are. The reader suspends disbelief and buys into the concept, much like they would do with a fantasy novel or any kind of fable.

And within this world, we have dozens of women who act and talk like noir characters always do – tenderly, violently, brutally, lyrically. This, I hope, creates a really interesting tension between the darkness and edge of the genre, and the fact that the protagonists are female: traditionally seen as sweet and submissive.

Of course, I made sure it was a good, twisting, entertaining yarn anyway – the story would stand on its own, even without the all-female hook. But that is what it hangs on, and I’m glad I wrote it. It was about time somebody did.


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