The Compelling New Female Face of California Noir - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Compelling New Female Face of California Noir

The Compelling New Female Face of California Noir

By Alexia Nader


Because the new noir is about more than “femme fatales and fedoras.”

By Alexia Nader

What’s on the other side of the California dream? This question fascinated authors like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett in the 1920s and ’30s and remains relevant almost a century after they wrote their fundamental noir works. Recently, however, authors and publishers have been attempting to broaden the concept of noir to fit our increasingly complicated times and urban spaces.

Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, which puts out noir anthologies, describes “progressive, contemporary noir” (what he chooses to publish) as dark stories that move beyond “femme fatales and fedoras” and worlds that are largely white and male to include “not just different voices, but different cultures.”

With gritty themes and tough female narrators, the following three novels rise to the challenge of breathing new life into noir. 

These stories form a multifaceted and critical perspective of incarceration in America.

The Magnificent Esme Wells, Adrienne Sharp’s story of a showgirl’s coming of age in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the 1930s and ’40s, reads like noir turned inside out. Though Esme finds herself in situations similar to those of a traditional noir femme fatale, her first-person narration immerses us in her thoughts, revealing the fierce ambition driving her. Gangsters drawn from real-life figures such as Bugsy Siegel rule Hollywood’s showbiz industry, then build up the city of Las Vegas and its mythical status. Yet they also come across as complex and deeply flawed. Sharp, who’s best known for her novel The True Memoirs of Little K, brings a sharp eye for historical detail to her latest tale. Her deft descriptions bring to life fascinating corners of the scrappy cities where the novel is set — such as the tiny cabarets of the original Vegas casinos or the concession stand at Hollywood Park Racetrack.


The Mars Room, told largely through the perspective of a woman in prison for killing her stalker, strikes an unusual tone: a mix of toughness, often found in noir works, and deep longing for the security of family. Rachel Kushner, who lives in Los Angeles, creates a story that moves skillfully from the San Francisco of the protagonist’s younger years to the prison outside of LA where she is sent after her trial. The protagonist’s voice reverberates off other voices — like that of a corrupt police officer who is sent to prison — whose cynicism and fatalism lends a noirish tinge to their own deftly crafted sub-stories. Together, these stories form a multifaceted and critical perspective of incarceration in America.

Catalina, Liska Jacobs’ slim debut novel follows the emotional collapse of a young woman laid off from her job at a prestigious New York museum after ending an affair with her boss. Elsa Fisher travels to Los Angeles, ostensibly to unwind with old college friends, but really to escape both her failed relationship and New York City. Recklessly spiraling deeper into drug and alcohol addiction, she assumes a series of false identities for one-night stands with strangers at hotels. The theme of assumed identity is unmistakably noir, but Jacobs allows a question to resonate behind it: Why don a disguise? Identity in this novel is more than a way to drive the plot; Jacobs explores the psychology of a woman mourning an identity that feels irreparably broken. 

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories