July 31, 2013


The Pankhearst FemNoir Sampler
edited by Evangeline Jennings
302 pages, Pankhearst

Review by Pat Black

Cars and Girls. The very essence of Americana. Straight away you’re knee-deep in the imagery, beloved of songwriters from Leiber and Stoller onwards. Imagine a saurian vehicle with fins driven by a cliff-jawed boy in a high school jacket and a slick Elvis quiff. Maybe he’s got a little foxtail mascot fluttering from his radio antenna; he’s definitely playing rock n’ roll, with 5/4 beats and a double bass.

And of course, he’s got his best girl beside him. Maybe she’s got a ribbon in her hair. Maybe she’s wearing a polka-dot dress - not nearly short enough to be racy, but she’s a regular little Natalie Wood in all her bobby-socked glory. Maybe they’ve taken a stop in a roadside diner with red leather seats. Maybe they’ve ordered an ice cream soda. Maybe they’re going to have a good old slice of mom’s apple pie.

Got the picture? Good.

Now tear it up.

The roadside diner you’re imagining is being held up; your best girl isn’t a cherry-cheeked ingĂ©nue in a ra-ra skirt, but a tattooed jailbird with bigger biceps than you and she’s shoved a Desert Eagle in your face. You’re going for a ride. Yes, we’re taking your car.

Maybe there’s already a couple of bullet holes spiderwebbing the windows; maybe they match the bullet holes she put in the two guys lying on the floor. Maybe the apple pie looks more like cherry pie splattered against the walls, and, actually… now that I’ve dipped my finger and had a little taste… maybe it isn’t cherry pie at all.

Oh, you can keep the cars, though; they’re present all the way through each story as four different women hit the road in search of revenge. The only snag is that you’re not driving. Maybe she is, but you’re not quite sure. Because you’re in the trunk. Maybe you’ve been tied up. Maybe you’re dead.

Cars and Girls is a collection of four crime novellas written by four different women. Each story concerns a woman wronged in some way, and their quest for revenge, blood for blood. Cars and Girls and Guns might have been a better alternative title. Or maybe Cars and Girls and Guns and Sex. Because guess what? The girls quite like kissing, too. And lots of other stuff.  Some of which you’ve never tried, or heard of, before. And not necessarily with boys, either. She would make for an interesting date at the drive-in, that’s for sure.

The book is styled as “fem-noir”; all the trappings of pulp fiction, overlaid with a thin coating of Tarantino-esque irony, with the idea of the femme fatale taken to new extremes. It owes something to 90s Riot Grrl culture, but its roots stretch all the way back to the golden age of the pulps. Out goes Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Parker; in come tough girls not afraid to drive fast, shoot first and fight dirty. The whole enterprise is drenched Tarantino-red, but there are dark flecks of Donald E Westlake in this mixture. Its winks to the audience never get too cute. And maybe there’s a little splash of early Russ Meyer in there, too - breasts and switchblades and catfights included.

In the first story, Zoe Spencer’s 500, we take off at breakneck pace in a globe-trotting adventure with the English heiress Emily Maltravers. After a blizzard of disguises, false trails and red herrings, she first shakes off the pursuers who killed her father before the hunted becomes the huntress. I detected a wee note of Bond, but with the roles reversed; the international woman of mystery takes the place of the smooth spy, and the men in her life are in thrall to her whether they want her in a bed or in her grave.

Next we hit the gas in Tee Tyson’s Road Runner with Holly Hellbound. She’s a former junkie and prostitute whose life has been ruined almost from its first moments by truly evil parents. Pregnant to a client after her father takes to pimping her out, Holly is deliberately overdosed while in labour. Her child is taken off her and she is sent to prison. After leaving jail, she gets herself some armaments and heads out in search of revenge… and maybe something else, as she seeks the daughter she has never met.

Although elements of this will put you in mind of another vengeful mommy in Kill Bill, this is a far darker story as Holly metes out cruel retribution on the people she was meant to trust most in life. The blood and violence is plentiful but the story also has heart, too – in a narrator who doesn’t think she is capable of it - all the way through to a poignant climax.

Trailer trash action next in Madeline Harvey’s Barracuda, as a teenage girl with a reputation looks out for her kid sister after she is set upon by hooting high school meatheads. This was an alternate-universe version of the Dukes of Hazzard, with the Hazzard boys’ place taken by two ultra-mean fist-fighting sisters who come out swinging, indeed, from behind the wheel of their daddy’s monster car. The high school jocks come to understand the meaning of regret.

The kink factor is ramped up in our final tale, Evangeline Jennings’ Crown Victoria, as a shadowy young narrator goes on a road trip with their best girl. We take a bunnyhop into EL James territory as the best girl is into BDSM – go, go Gadget SEO! – and is completely submissive to the narrator’s demands. While revenge on evil relatives who abused them forms the driver of the story, there are a lot of smacked arses along the way. “Psychosexual” is the word I hesitate to use; but there’s a lot going on under the surface. A lot of people end up dead before the final stop on the trip.

There are detailed sex scenes in all of the tales. I do wonder if explicit sex was an essential part of the fem-noir formula laid down for each rampage of revenge by the editor. One or two of them do feel unnecessary, but it gets your attention, that’s for sure. “There’s too much sex in this,” said no-one to themselves, ever.

All credit to the girls for stripping off. In penning a sex scene, the writer is more naked than naked. There can be no greater act of literary bravery than in seeing a love scene all the way from meaningful looks to sighing and cigarettes. Some of the shagging described made me giggle, and I wondered if we’d perhaps switched genres while I was distracted. But all of the scenes raised an eyebrow – which is especially impressive if you only have one eyebrow, drawn in thick black marker across your forehead, like me.

Cars and Girls is a fun anthology with plenty of action, sex, shootings and brawling, but there are serious points to be made. As Jarvis Cocker once sang, “C*nts are still running the world” – and to be clear, by “c*nts” he means bloated, smug, rich white men who feel they can do what they want, when they want - especially with women. This book seeks to slap that smirk off their faces, and I love it for that.

But as well as revenge, every story has an arc of redemption. There are also more pleasant males who help our heroines along the road to balance out the arseholes. Even Holly Hellbound discovers that no life can be completely ruined. The muscle car can be turned around. Hope is just around the corner. Hell is getting smaller in your rearview mirror. Whether you want to emphasise that point by pulling a trigger is up to you… 

Read the author interview here.


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