The Women of Noir: Beginning a Primer

Patricia Highsmith: Her work was adapted into some of the most iconic films of this century.
When most people think of noir/crime fiction (casual violence, knocking heads, guy’s guys, and blowzy dames), lots of names come to mind. Here, I’ll throw out a few, classics first:  Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, James M. Cain, and more recently, Derek Raymond, Elmore Leonard, and the list goes on. Notice a theme? Yep, all men! Don’t get me wrong, I love hardboiled, noir crime fiction, and all of these authors  have brought wonderful work to the table, but it’s time the dames of noir had a (big) piece of the spotlight, so here we go.

Let’s start with Patricia Highsmith. The wildly talented Ms. Highsmith is one of my faves, and she’s a local girl (Ft. Worth, Texas!), and also thought to be one of the first great female noir authors. Her first novel was Strangers on a Train. You know the one: it was famously made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. Maybe you’re also familiar with a film called The Talented Mr. Ripley? That was hers too, and Tom Ripley is one of the most disturbing characters in crime fiction history, in my opinion. Her work was punctuated by violence and very dark humor, and if you haven’t discovered her yet, you’re in for a real treat. Sadly, Ms. Highsmith passed away in 1995, but she has a bibliography of over 20 novels and many short stories, so what are you waiting for?

Queenpin by Megan Abbott
Queenpin by Megan Abbott
Another of my personal faves is Megan Abbott. Megan is the author of six novels, the first of which, The Street Was Mine, is a study of hardboiled noir.  She’s also an Edgar Award winner (for Queenpin), Edgar nominee (for Die a Little and Bury Me Deep), and her most recent novel, The End of Everything is about 13-year-old Evie, who disappears in the Midwest of the ’80s, and the toll it takes on her family and especially her best friend Lizzie. Die a Little, Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep all take place in the heyday of the ’30s and ’40s and are chock full of gangsters, molls, and Hollywood glamour. (The Song is You is based on a true story.) Her newest novel,  Dare Me, is due in July and looks to be a scorcher!

Next up is one of the coolest chicks in crime fiction today: Christa Faust. Christa is the author of five crime novels, of which the most recent is Choke Hold, and her previous novel,  Money Shot, was published by Hard Case Crime and was an Edgar nominee (seeing a theme here?) She’s also author of more than a few movie novelizations (nommed for quite a few awards too), and countless short stories. Christa’s books are the epitome of noir cool and are populated with very tough girls and high octane action. Christa is also the first woman to write for Hard Case Crime! If that ain’t cool, then I don’t know what is.

This is by no means an all-inclusive primer (can you say Cathi Unsworth and Val McDermid?), but certainly gives you plenty of goodies to get you started down the dark road of noir and the super cool ladies that write it, so hang on, ’cause it’s gonna be a rough (but fun) ride.

Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all Kristin Centorcelli’s posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Rob Hansen

    Given the times she lived through Patricia Highsmith had to conceal her lesbianism but her secret shame, the thing she tried to destroy all record of, was that she wrote for comics books:


    A shame we’ll never know which ones she wrote.

  2. Art Taylor

    Don’t forget Dorothy B. Hughes! Her novel In A Lonely Place is one of my favorites. The Feminist Press has a great edition with a provocative afterword as well — part of their Femmes Fatales series.

  3. Kristin Centorcelli

    @RobHansen didn’t know about the comics! That IS too bad!

    @ArtTaylorWriter don’t worry, there will be another post in the primer, and she’s definitely on my shortlist!

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