Brigid – The Maltese Falcon
This novel by Dashiell Hammett was published almost 90 years ago, and features on the list of the ‘100 best English-language novels of the 20th century’. The Maltese Falcon is a prime example of how a femme fatale can be used creatively. In the novel, Sam Spade, the main character, is attracted to three women: he enters an affair with his late co-detective’s wife, Iva, and he is attracted to Effie – his secretary. Brigid is the femme fatale in the book, promising him sensuality and wealth. She matches Spade, in both wit and manipulative prowess, and the fact that she understands him and accepts his aggression means that she has him tightly wrapped around her finger – the perfect trait of any femme fatale.
Published in 1934, and later made into several noir films and an opera, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic piece of hardboiled fiction, and Cora – a young, beautiful woman – is a classic femme fatale. Here, the affair between Cora and young drifter Frank is passionate and slightly sadistic; they plan on killing Cora’s much older husband so they can take over his diner. Cora never appears to be evil or mercenary; she just wants to “amount to something”. Despite the fact she agrees to killing her own husband, you end up sympathising – even rooting – for her, rather than hating her.
Julie – The Bride Wore Black
Cornell Woolrich really became famous as the author of Rear Window – the short story that was inspiration behind the Alfred Hitchcock film. But this hardboiled fiction book – The Bride Wore Black – gave us one of the most well-known femme fatales ever: Julie Killeen. Julie is a young woman whose husband was murdered in front of her on their wedding day, but she doesn’t know which of five men killed him. She sets off on a mesmerising mission to murder them all one by one, but not before she has immersed herself into their lives in order to get her revenge.
Phyllis – Double Indemnity
Phyllis Dietrichson has all the characters of a classic femme fatale – and then some. Phyllis feels like a caged animal in her own home, and is driven to murder her husband largely due to the absence of romance and affection. This femme fatale’s violent behaviour is attributed, therefore, to her lack of status and fulfilment in conventional marriage. She is perhaps the most convincing of all femme fatales – playing the ‘damsel in distress’ card and using hats, and even one wig, to convince an overconfident insurance broker to kill her husband.
Madelon – A Touch of Death
Charles Williams, author of A Touch of Death, may not be as well-known as Cain or Hammett, but he wrote several hardboiled novels starring some of the most fatal femmes ever seen on paper. Madelon Butler is a prime example; we are first introduced to her sitting drunk on the floor, listening to records on repeat. But before long, she gets her act together and is in the driving seat – manipulating an ex-footballer into committing crimes on her behalf. Finally, she subjects him to an utterly cruel fate that may turn your heart to ice when you read it.
Veda – Mildred Pierce
This 1941 hardboiled novel by James M Cain manages to paint a realistic portrayal of a woman’s struggle for success during the depression era. Mildred, however, isn’t the femme fatale in this book – that title goes to her daughter, Veda. Veda is anything but a one-dimensional femme fatale – she is a spider-woman who traps her mother in a web of deceit. Who knew it could be so fun to hate a single character? It’s testament to Cain’s writing that the reader manages to feel such distain towards Mildred’s monstrous daughter.
Did we miss your favourite femme fatale of all time? We’d love to hear from you in the comments box below.