A Wicked Welcome to John Copenhaver! **plus a giveaway!**

by Julie, finishing week one of the new year!

I am delighted to welcome John Copenhaver to the blog today! I interviewed John for the Sisters in Crime podcast, and loved talking about writing with him. Now it’s time to celebrate his new book!

Challenging Archetypes:
Finding a New Story for the Femme Fatale

Set in 1948 Washington, DC, my new historical mystery, The Savage Kind, features two teenage girls, Judy and Philippa, who are crime solvers à la Nancy Drew and femmes fatales whose actions thrust them headlong into dangerous moral territory. With these characters, I wanted to challenge the femme fatale stereotype that haunts mid-century American detective fiction. What if, I asked myself, the femme fatale who slinked through hardboiled detective fiction or across Golden Age movie screens had been misunderstood? Of course, she was a misogynistic construction: Men of the time brimmed with existential anxiety about losing their dominance in the workplace and at home, fearing the assertive and independent woman and casting her as conniving and treacherous. But what if the femme fatale weren’t innately evil as she is so often presented, but instead just pissed off.

Frankly, she has many reasons to be. During WWII, women found more opportunities in the workplace and consequently greater independence, which led to their increased sense of purpose. When the war ended, those doors of opportunity swung closed: what women could do or be significantly narrowed. Even how housewives were defined became strictly codified: women must aspire to polished-chrome-and-waxed-linoleum suburban perfection, a throwback to Coventry Patmore’s Victorian self-sacrificing and subservient Angel in the House that Virginia Woolf famously challenges in her 1931 essay, “Professions for Women.”

Seventeen, single-minded, and queer, Judy and Philippa see a possible future for themselves embodied by their intelligent and prepossessing English teacher, Miss Martins. Miss M, as Judy calls her, bonds with them through a shared love of literature and music, frank talk about gender dynamics, and sisterly emotional guidance. She is a professional, a single woman who treasures her freedom and asserts her opinions without apology.

When Philippa witnesses her teacher being savagely attacked and, shortly after, a fellow classmate who had been behaving in a threatening manner toward all of them disappears, the girls plunge into the mystery. However, it’s more than an amateur detective’s curiosity or a sense of justice driving them; it’s a deep concern for what their teacher represents: the agency they seek, but which, according to all the cultural signposting, is becoming increasingly unacceptable. By solving the crime and avenging Miss M, they are protecting their futures.

So why did I, a gay cis-gendered man, decide to write about Judy and Philippa? Why was I drawn to two young women growing up in the late 40s? Of course, the most obvious answer is that I love the texture and mood of the time, especially as it shows up in crime fiction and films noir. That’s true, but that’s not quite it. Another possibility is that my mother, like Judy and Philippa, came of age in the postwar era. Unlike these girls, though, she capitulated to her father’s and my father’s wishes to conform to the traditional role of mother and wife, a role she’s never felt entirely at ease in. Perhaps that’s why Judy and Philippa called to me, but I think it’s because, as a gay man, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I understand their anger, and I can identify with their desire to find adults to model, something I struggled with when I was their age. As young women in the 1940s, their struggles are different than mine when I was a teenager in the 1990s, but the resonance continues to fascinate me—enough for me to write a trilogy about them!

I’m curious: as readers (and writers), what literary archetype would you like to see challenged or refreshed in a new way? I’ll giveaway a copy of The Savage Kind to a commenter!

About the Book

The iconic femme fatale has been misunderstood. The Savage Kind is the sympathetic coming of age story she deserves. Judy and Philippa, two lonely teenage girls in post-WWII DC, form an intense and passionate bond, discover they have a penchant for solving crimes—and perhaps an even greater desire to commit them. On their journey to catch a killer, they may become killers themselves. Buy on Bookshop.org, Amazon, or wherever you purchase your books.


John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning (Pegasus), won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel and garnered Anthony, Strand Critics, Barry, and Lambda Literary Award nominations. Copenhaver writes a crime fiction review column for Lambda Literary called “Blacklight,” cohosts on the House of Mystery Radio Show. He currently lives in Richmond, VA, with his husband, artist Jeffery Paul. The Savage Kind (Pegasus) is his second novel. Website: www.johncopenhaver.com

29 Thoughts

  1. Welcome, John, and congratulations! What a great premise and time period for your story. I can’t wait to read it, and I’m not sure how I missed Dodging and Burning.

    I always like to see children’s literature stretched. I found a lovely new book for the four year old in my life. The Wooden Robot and the Log Princess is a sweet tale of odd siblings who rescue each other. He is kind and brave and so is she.

    1. Thank you, Edith! Yes, new twists on traditional children’s stories can be very effective! On a darker note: I love teaching my high school students the traditional fairytales—they’re surprised how gruesome some of them are.

  2. Love stories in this era which gives me a glimpse of how things were during my parent’s time. This story also shows us some of the struggles of woman of that time. I know my Mom was thrown into completely different roles from housewife to head of the household expected to do all of men’s work when my dad was sent off to Korea. It’s always fun to see parts of time shown from a different angle. Doesn’t mean one replaces another, but shows it from another perspective.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  3. Thank you for this great essay, John. I’d love to get a copy of your book. I’d like to see more crime fiction present nuanced examinations of middle-aged and older women and men of color.

    1. Thank you, Delia. I love your suggestions for deeper characterizations of middle-aged women and men of color. We NEED more of those characters represented.

  4. Your analysis of the femme fatale is fascinating. I never thought about it before. Thank you, John, for sharing all this food for thought.

    1. Thanks so much! The post-war era is SUCH a fascinating time period. So much change—and a lot of it pretty problematic. Makes for great fodder for fiction.

  5. It’s so great to have you here, John! I miss seeing you in person. Thank you for this excellent piece and like Barb Goffman said so much to think about. I agree with Edith that we need children’s literature that is more diverse.

    1. Sherry! I miss you too. I’m yearning to see my crime writing peeps in person. It’s been too long! It’s such a pleasure to visit the blog—Thank you, Julie!

  6. Wow, just wow. Fascinating! I came of age in the 1960’s. When I entered university in September 1965, the “house” rules of my dormitory included wearing a skirt or dress on Sundays on campus, curfews of 10:30 on weeknights and 12:30 on weekends, no men in the dorm except fathers and brothers on Sundays, codes for announcing the arrival of guests, locked doors. When I graduated in May 1969, there were no more curfews, no dress codes, no locked dorms. Everything was changing. It is interesting to look at the 20th Century and think of how drastically things changed for women over that time and the people who are still fighting against it to this day. Thank you for this glimpse of the 1940’s from a very different point of view.

    1. Thank you, Judy! The post-war era and it’s evolution into the 1960s is fascinating. I plan to take my femmes fatales, Judy and Philippa, into the 1950s with my next book and finally, with the last book in the trilogy, into the early 1960s. So much change.

  7. I would like to see literary archetype be challenged with bullying and how they deal with it and the character’s solutions.

  8. Wow, congratulations, your book sounds and looks very intriguing! I love stories where girls-women stand up for themselves and are very brave and won’t take anything from anybody . I love it when females are independent and they don’t depend on anybody but themselves. I will be adding your book to my TBR list for sure. Have a great weekend and stay safe.

  9. Welcome to the Wickeds, John. What a fantastic premise. We need to TAWK. My mother graduated from Cornell with honors in economics, the only woman within ten years on either side of her to do so. (This was, in part, because the department member who most opposed women participating in economics classes was on sabbatical and a number of the junior faculty pitched in to help my mother and make sure she achieved this honor.) Then she went home and stayed home. It was a terrible fit, though several volunteer organizations benefited. As a result, I worked at a demanding career. As a result, my daughter and daughter-in-law have chosen less well-compensated careers trying for better work-life balance. And on and on it goes.

    1. Wow, Barbara! It’s amazing the number of exceptionally talented women were urged (sometimes commanded) to stay home and give up their careers. I’m all for women (and men) who want to be full-time parents and be at home, but it should be a choice. For my mother, it was not a choice—of course, I’m the result of that choice, so … it goes on. : ) So happy to be on the blog. Thank you for having me!

  10. Thanks for visiting today, John! I really appreciate your take on the femme fatale and on what might motivate her. This was a really thought provoking post and I look forward to reading your work.

  11. I love the idea of upending the femme fatale trope. I think you’re right, that her dangerousness had a lot to do with male anxiety in the postwar era. Fears about the loss of power, and the psychological machinations that accompany it, feel pretty timely to me now, too. Thanks for a thoughtful essay!

    1. Thanks, Karen! I completely agree: it’s definitely timely. It’s amazing to me how much the post-war era still informs gender dynamics today.

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