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!
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