More than Just a Femme Fatale

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I’ve always been attracted to strong women, and right now, my head is being turned by the fictional female characters who have outgrown their women-in-peril tropes—be that danger coming from within the home or lying beyond the safety of her front door.

Sitting within the wider genre of crime fiction, the domestic noir—or psychological thriller—is on the crest of the wave right now, and there are a lot of fictional women out there having a shocking time of it. Their children are missing, their nice husbands are turning out to be psychopaths, and their best friends are plotting to kill them. I don’t know how they’re still finding the strength to get out of bed each morning.

At first, we stuck by our hero while she walked through the gates of domestic hell because we liked her—she was so normal, so just like us. Then, things got a little flawed. Was this woman all she seemed? Hiding her own secrets? An unreliable narrator? Did she have a drink or drugs problem? Was she mentally ill? All of the above?

I’ve written variations of these women several times now, and while they’ve been fun, I’m finding myself becoming more and more fascinated by this woman’s older sister: the downright mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know female leads who know their own minds—even if they’re twisted ones.

Make no mistake, however, these women are complicated. There’s nothing interesting in simply showing that women are just as capable of committing dark crimes as men; these women have got far more about them than that. I started playing around with a character called Catherine recently, who currently lives in a short story called “The Wife.” She’s not a woman you’d want to cross, and she does something completely horrific to protect the happy-ever-after that’s slipping through her fingertips. I thought I’d be leaving her there, but Catherine is threatening to break out into a bigger novel simply because she’s such a dark pleasure to write and—I hope—read about.

By Frederick Sandys –, Public Domain

Indeed, the complicated female protagonist is hardly an original concept and has been enthralling audiences since time began. In Greek mythology, Medea avenges her husband Jason (he of the golden fleece) when he abandons her for another woman by sending the woman concerned a dress covered in poison. It kills both Jason’s new love and her father, who rushes to her aid. Not content with that, Medea also kills two of her children with Jason.

By the time Lady Macbeth has picked up the baton in 1606, suppressing all of her typically “feminine” instincts in favour of ambitiously, murderously, and ruthlessly seeking power, we’re hooked. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District—a Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov written in 1865 and inspired by Shakespeare—sees a woman rallying against the role expected of her in the 19th century and runs deeply into the dark with a tale of adultery, obsession, and murder. It also inspired an acclaimed 2016 film by William Oldroyd called Lady Macbeth. These are, of course, the most extreme versions of the femme fatal, and it’s perhaps the more textured versions of these women and the layers of their behavior that are interesting, rather than the heinous acts of violence they commit.

So, should my Catherine get a larger stage, she’ll be keeping very good company.

Lydia in Liz Nugent’s excellent Lying In Wait is a fascinating contemporary example of a truly evil woman who, at one point, you feel so sorry for; it’s hard not to cry. Stephanie Marland’s upcoming November 2017 release, My Little Eye, is well worth looking at, as is Eva Dolan’s January 2018 release, This Is How it Ends. Shirley Jackson’s 1962 masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, has also had its first screen adaptation in the upcoming film by Stacie Passon, with a release date to be confirmed.

It seems our fascination with these women isn’t abating anytime soon. Watch your back.

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Lucy Dawson has had six books published, and her work has been translated into numerous languages. Lucy read Psychology at Warwick University before working as a magazine editor. She now writes full time and lives in Devon with her husband and children.

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