Older women in 1940s noir and what Helen Jacey has done about it…
Raymond Chandler’s character of Anna Halsey in Trouble is My Business had a remarkable effect on me. I read the rest of the novel wanting more of her and less of sleuth hero Philip Marlow. Why? Well, not only did Anna possess all the straight talking sass and jaded worldview I admire in a P.I., she is arguably one of the only female private detectives in 1940s noir. I wanted to follow Anna’s cases, find out what her client list looked like, and how she got results. She was my kind of older gal!
Marlowe is often vicious about the ugliness of older women he encounters. He lives in a time when women over twenty five were considered over the hill. While he doesn’t mince his words about Ms Halsey’s looks (fat and old), he has professional respect for her. Chandler for once allowed an older female character, and a fellow sleuth, to have a big dollop of charisma in her characterisation.
Encountering Anna Halsey may have played a small part in why I decided to create, Elvira Slate Investigations. As a self-confessed noir crime addict, I adore 1940s style but loathe the values of the era. The ageism, sexism, racism and homophobia populating books and movies of the period are abhorrent in even those considered ‘classics’ of the genre. Honoring the wisdom of Toni Morrison, I wrote the book I wanted to read –1940s set, noir, but revisionist. The one book turned out to be a book series – Elvira Slate Investigations. Book one, Jailbird Detective was published in 2018, followed by Chipped Pearls a year later, both published through my company Shedunnit Productions.
The invisibility of older woman in 1940s noir is astounding. In movies of the period, the roles are decidedly limited: the strange housekeeper, the distant (often wealthy) aunt, the creepy governess or the dowdy maid, the sad spinster, the professional woman who shuns glamor (often denounced as ‘female impersonators’ by men who expected women to be young and beautiful. Positive traits are hard to come by, usually in minor characters, a friendly foil to the glamorous young protagonist.
The glaring absence of older female protagonists reflects the misogyny of the decade – and what happens to female representation when men are exclusively decision makers and power brokers. Men, as the gatekeepers in Hollywood and publishing, kept the older woman protagonist out.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is one of the better-known older woman sleuths. She inhabits the comfortable somewhat cozy genre of English Golden Age crime fiction where most female private eyes are amateur, because law enforcement doesn’t yet accept women in their ranks. Marple solves crimes with ingenuity born out of her outsider status as a elderly spinster, confounding both criminals and cops. Her status as a white, older woman, genteel in manners and gentle by nature, lends her agency in crime busting. She is ultimately respectable by standards of the day.
Subverting the negative stereotypes of older women was really important to me in Elvira Slate Investigations. I purposely want the series to be dominated by a cast of all kinds of women, older, diverse, LGBTQ., to give them complex and dimensional lives.
While Elvira Slate is mid-twenties, her mentor Beatty Falaise is in well into her sixties and could be pals with Anna Halsey. Beatty is top of the female private detective food chain in my fictional version of Los Angeles, and chair of the Association of Women Detectives of Southern California (a fictional body, but if guys can have their clubs, why can’t the dames?). She’s a woman who has it all – happily married, a fashion fiend, as well as a highly successful businesswoman. Her one regret? She didn’t have her own daughter.
Beatty is central to Elvira’s rehabilitation from damaged ex-felon to skilled private eye. Not only is she one of the few women to see the potential in Elvira, she gives her a break. She’s the all-important professional role model every young woman entrepreneur needs. She teaches Elvira the tricks of the trade, and coaches her through her first cases. And like any self-respecting cynical sleuth who has seen it all, Beatty doesn’t mince her words. When Elvira messes up, Beatty insists she cleans it up.
And it’s a reciprocal relationship. Elvira becomes the daughter-figure Beatty needs. One thing 1940s noir – in films and books – isn’t so hot on is representation of healthy mother/daughter relationships. Think Mildred Pierce and that pathologically manipulative relationship. So creating an empowering mother/daughter symbolic bond was top of my agenda.
Other sexagenarian characters are Tatiana Spark, a retired silent movie star, and transwoman Joyce who runs a nightclub for the queer community. Both have fulfilled careers, and live life on their terms. With Tatiana, I wanted her to represent a woman who might still have secret wounds borne out of a world that didn’t allow women to be unwed mothers, but a woman who uses her money to lead a fulfilled life of travel, of culture, and ultimately, of empowering other women.
Joyce lives in her rightful gender, after an unhappy marriage as a man, and provides an important social hub for the queer community in 1940s LA. Joyce is ahead of her time, and best friends and more with many of the lesbian characters. She has experienced transphobia but doesn’t tolerate it. She’s dignified and merciful: she sometimes gives less informed characters a chance to wise up she is a real woman. If they can’t, then there’s no room for them in her life.
And there are plenty of women in their forties and fifties upwards, doing their thing, looking fabulous and enjoying life: top screenwriter Martell Grainger, artist Olive Harjo, gangster Reba T, Sal, the cab driver, Mrs Loeb the front-desk woman, and many more to come!
So what are my emerging feminist tropes for the older woman in my feminist revision of 1940s noir?
They can have fulfilling sexual relationships, not just lonely spinsterhood
They have social lives
They have career success
They aren’t defined only by regret or guilt
They don’t agonize over fading looks
They can be lesbian, trans, diverse and live fulfilled lives in spite of the repressive 1940s
They support and empower other women acting as role models
Menopause and post-menopause are not taboo subjects
In short, life might not be a bed of roses for the older woman in my 1940s noir world, but she isn’t just tending the garden in her glamorous housecoat.