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Peter Swanson Picks his Five Favourite Fictional Femme Fatales

Posted on 11th April 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Author Peter Swanson has more than once found himself drawn to writing about female killers and it's a theme he interrogates in his enthralling new thriller All the Beautiful Lies. Here the author discusses the enduring appeal of the femme fatale fatale in fiction and chooses five favourite characters who remain iconic literary anti-heroes.

When I began writing my new novel, All the Beautiful Lies, I thought the main character would be Harry Ackerson, a recent college graduate investigating his father’s mysterious death. But as soon as I began to write from the perspective of Alice Moss, Harry’s stepmother, I knew that she would become central to the book. It isn’t the first time that a murderous female has taken over one of my novels. Lily Kintner, the main character in The Kind Worth Killing, began her fictional life as a minor character, but was quickly promoted to lead.

Why am I so drawn to writing about female killers? To truly answer that question I’d probably need a psychoanalyst, but maybe it’s simply that I’ve always loved reading books about female villainy. There are so many male killers in books and film, and they tend to fall in one of two camps, either deranged serial killers, or else they are spurned lovers driven by passion to kill. 

But with fictional female killers the motives tend to be a little more complicated. Maybe because the idea of a woman murderer is considered so unnatural. Women are supposed to be better than men. They bring life into the world, and are natural caregivers. Maybe that’s why they are so often presented as the victims. Look at the cover art of crime novels now and in the past and the most common image is the beautiful female victim.

Of course, not all femme fatales are created equally. For every complex female villain there’s the clichéd one, the slinky curvaceous predator entering the private eyes’ office. She might as well be wearing a sign that says, “Bad News”. But a well-written femme fatale is one of my favorite things. There are many examples, but here are five of my personal favorites. 

Phyllis Nirdlinger in Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (1945)

Cain specialized in the dangerous female, but Phyllis Nirdlinger, immortalized by Barbara Stanwyk in Billy Wilder’s film version, is my favorite. A bored Southern California housewife who talks an insurance agent into killing her husband, she is almost feral in her devotion to murder. The movie is one of the all time greats, but the book is far more chilling, especially the end. There is a poisonous toxicity to the character that expresses itself in both her villainy and her sexuality. A disturbing (but in a good way) book.

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James M. Cain’s brutal, noir classic, famously adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler and directed by Billy Wilder. Insurance agent Walter Huff is lured to the dark side by Phyllis Nirdlinger, whose scheme to murder her husband could handsomely reward them both. However, following her husband’s murder, their plan begins to unravel…
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Crissy Harkinson in The Last One Left by John D. MacDonald (1966)

MacDonald wrote several femme fatales but none better than the truly evil Crissy Harkinson in one of his best standalone novels. She is the definition of ruthless, a woman who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what she wants. To that end she is willing to use every weapon in her arsenal, and she is pitiless. Characters like this can come across as oversimplified, or else misogynistic, but MacDonald was such an astute chronicler of the human condition that Crissy is a fully realized character, far more interesting than MacDonald’s most famous villain, Max Cady from his novel The Executioners, more popularly known as Cape Fear in the two film versions.

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Texan attorney Sam Boyleston arrives in the Bahamas to investigate the death of his brother in a yacht explosion. Five others lie dead too, and in the company of reporter Raoul Kelly, Boyleston begins to realise that a ruthless hidden hand is manipulating events.
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Eve Beck in The Crocodile Bird by Ruth Rendell (1993)

Rendell was the absolute master of the psychologically damaged character, and especially good at showing how those characters affect their families. Eve Beck and her daughter Liza live in the gate house of a country mansion, where Eve keeps Liza isolated from the rest of the world. Eve, we learn early on, has a murderous past and Liza might be the apple that hasn’t dropped far from the tree. The book is suffocating, dark, and tragic, and like most of Rendell’s stories, absolutely compulsive reading.

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Sixteen years old Liza lives with her mother, Eve, in a secluded gatehouse, which she has never been allowed to leave. As Liza runs into the arms of her secret lover, she begins to see the logic behind her mother's gruesome crimes, and must accept the possibility that she has inherited Eve's lust for murder...
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Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

Flynn created a totally unique character when she introduced Amy Dunne in her bestselling novel. Amy is both a product of her time—a narcissist plagued with self-doubt—but also a classic femme fatale, a woman willing and able to go to the darkest limits to get what she wants, and to harm those who have harmed her. 

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Artfully employing misdirection, unreliable narrators and jaw-dropping twists, Flynn’s third novel is a bravura white-knuckle ride into the heart of millennial darkness.
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???????? in Crooked House by Agatha Christie (1949)

I won’t give away the ending of Agatha Christies’s most underrated novel (although I’ve obviously reduced the number of suspects to only women). I love this book, and its clever and biting denouement. Christie shows that femme fatales don’t always announce themselves at the very beginning; sometimes they hide in plain sight.

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The death of wealthy family patriarch and entrepreneur Aristide Leonides leads Charles Hayward, fiancé to Leonides’ granddaughter Sophia, into investigating the truth behind his demise. But even with help from the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard – a man who just happens to be Charles’s father – will he be able to avoid the red herrings that fall his way?
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