The challenge in coming up with the top ten villainesses in fiction is really an embarrassment of riches. Our literature teams with powerful female characters who know that all is fair in love and war. These women know how to use men as their pawns and they stop at nothing to achieve their own nefarious goals. The Lawn Job by Chuck Caruso is out now!
Lady Macbeth – Yes, Macbeth wants to be king. Or at least he can’t stop thinking about the possibility once the weird sisters put the idea in his head. But without the merciless urgings of his power-hungry wife, Macbeth would never have murdered the king. Lady Macbeth is pure femme fatale when she suggestively commands her husband: “Screw your courage to the sticking place / and we’ll not fail.”
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” – Romantic poet John Keats captures the essence of the femme fatale in verse with this enigmatic twelve-verse ballad. The poem’s speaker, a knight at arms finds himself in thrall to a wild-eyed beautiful woman. We know he’s lost when he says, “She looked at me as she did love / And made sweet moan.” Sure enough, a few short verses later, the knight is sleeping the big sleep “on the cold hill side.”
“Ligeia” – Edgar Allan Poe offers his own take on the femme fatale in this macabre tale of love and murder. The title character possesses the narrator body and soul from start to finish in this bizarre story. When he remarries after his beloved dies, the narrator feels himself compelled by Ligeia to murder his new wife. Daphne Du Maurier’s brilliant novel Rebecca plays with similar themes to great effect.
Brigid O'Shaughnessy – Dashiell Hammett nails the archetype of the femme fatale in his classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. That the eponymous dingus turns out to be as fake as Brigid’s professed feelings for Sam Spade makes this tale of double and triple crosses all the more compelling. Mary Astor’s wide-eyed innocence in the role of Brigid opposite Bogart’s Spade makes John Huston’s adaptation arguably the greatest film noir of all time.
Phyllis Nirdlinger (Dietrichson in the film) – Nobody writes a better femme fatale than James M. Cain. Almost every one of his novels has at least one woman who’s manipulating some poor schmuck into doing things he knows he shouldn’t. Cain first explores the trope with Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but I think Cora really loves Frank Chambers and she doesn’t survive the wicked twist of fate at the end. For my money, Cain’s best femme fatale is Phyllis Nirdlinger in Double Indemnity. It’s a quintessential noir moment when Walter Huff finally realizes that Phyllis has been playing him from the very start.
"Her" – Although many of Jim Thompson’s crime novels feature some variation on the femme fatale, we always get the sense that any particular female’s power ultimately derives from her uncanny resemblance to some primordial woman who first enraptured the male protagonist. My favorite of these femmes fatales is Fay Anderson from After Dark, My Sweet. Not only is the novel one of Thompson’s best, but James Foley’s adaptation is rightly considered a forgotten classic of the noir genre.
Matty Walker – Kathleen Turner plays the perfect neo-noir femme fatale in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 film Body Heat. The film has aged remarkably well due to Kasdan’s sharp script and the undeniable erotic tension between Turner and her co-star William Hurt. Sex drives this classic noir story of unquenchable desire, but the film never becomes merely pornographic. Linda Fiorentino’s femme fatale in The Last Seduction comes close, but nobody beats Turner’s Matty Walker for pure deviousness.
Amy Dunne – Gillian Flynn brilliant turns the classic noir story on its head by telling the story from multiple points of view. In Gone Girl, not only do we hear the hapless dupe’s story, but we get to experience things from the femme fatale’s perspective as well. Flynn herself scripted David Fincher’s excellent adaptation, starring Rosamund Pike in the lead role. Flynn’s mediation on what it means to be a “cool girl” updates the femme fatale trope in important and lasting ways.
Ava – Alicia Vikander as the sentient android Ava pushes the femme fatale into the age of artificial intelligence in the stunning 2014 sci-fi film Ex Machina. The trope becomes even more vexing as the male lead finds himself being seduced while performing an extended Turing Test on a coy and hyper-feminized robot. Noir fans may have missed this film since it was billed as sci-fi, but Ex Machina will leave you thinking about its femme fatale for days.
Juana – My debut crime novel, The Lawn Job features not one but two femmes fatales. Each woman represents a different take on trope, but my protagonist’s sometimes girlfriend, the gorgeous transgender stripper Juana captivates readers as easily as she seduces the men in her life. While her gender identity provides part of her intrigue, Juana sticks with readers by perfectly embodying the erotic mystery that remains essential to every femme fatale. I can’t wait for you to meet her. The Lawn Job will be released in the U.K. on 21 July 2017.