Damsels Get Even: Noir’s New Feminists

August 27, 2021   •   By Savy Janssen

One Got Away

S. A. Lelchuk

The Lady Upstairs

Halley Sutton

CONTRARY TO tired popular portrayals, women do not need to be saved by men. Today’s noir reflects this attitude of independence with badass female characters and their authors alike claiming power — through literal force and the written word.

In S. A. Lelchuk’s second novel, One Got Away, and Halley Sutton’s debut, The Lady Upstairs, readers enjoy female leads who fight the patriarchy and punish the terrible men benefiting from it, renewing a sense of justice and the hope that life can indeed imitate art.

Lelchuk — a Bay Area resident and graduate of Dartmouth College — brings his knowledge of NorCal and literary prowess to One Got Away, a page-turning thriller about an ass-kicking, book-loving private investigator, Nikki Griffin, who takes on a case for an old money San Francisco family. When the family’s octogenarian matriarch falls for a good-looking, smooth-talking Dr. Coombs, her children suspect him of being a con man swindling big cash from the family fortune. They soon catch wind of something darker at play: blackmail. They hire Nikki to chase him down. Little does she know that she’s stepping into a web of violence and foul play: car theft, hard drugs, underage prostitution, sex trafficking, and murder are among the crimes that complicate this chase to lock up the bad guy(s). With cliff-hanging chapters and a plot that rushes and weaves like a roller coaster, Lelchuk’s writing holds a tight grip from start to finish.

Beyond the story itself, the main character is exciting: Lelchuk creates a feminist who doesn’t describe herself that way but spins the femme fatale trope on its head. Nikki is a sort of female Robin Hood: “[W]hen I run into someone who has been treated badly, I don’t turn my head away,” she says. “I find the fellow who decided that rough was okay, and I give him the same taste of the rough that he dished out.” Her purpose seems to be liberating women, and really anyone, from harmful situations and from the patriarchy at large. For example, in a conflict scene, a villain jokes that women “always love to talk.” She doesn’t hesitate to punish: “I stepped behind him, kneeled down, and broke his left pinkie.” She reports, “I’d break fingers if needed,” though “it was never my favorite part.” She also has the occasional more explicit feminist moment, such as when she pauses to reflect mid-conversation, “Why did so many men need to feel like they were saving someone? Did all men fantasize about problems befalling women, just so they could be the one to fix things?”

Lelchuk doesn’t entirely break the norms with his lead. For example, it is curious how Nikki physically punishes misogyny and crime through traditionally masculine tactics: guns, punches, and other forms of physical retribution. Is it “feminist” to meet violence with violence? Is she just upholding the violence characteristic to noir as a genre? Would she be viewed as weaker if she didn’t? This is one way in which Lelchuk’s understanding as a male author seems to seep in and create a female lead who contradicts her feminist title. Additionally, Nikki’s appearance feels like a stereotyped heterosexual male fantasy: she’s a five-foot-eight, slim young woman who wears a leather bomber jacket and motorcycle boots as a uniform. She is whip smart, dangerous, and mysterious — and, of course, exceptionally beautiful. All the male characters flirt with her, and sometimes she uses her sexuality to manipulate them — a trait that flattens her as a sexualized female character but perhaps also subverts traditional male-female power dynamics. On one hand, Nikki feels like something from a James Bond movie, a Megan Fox–like dream girl — yet, she isn’t all leather and sex appeal: she has complex emotions and a backstory that complicates her. The murder of her parents haunts and motivates Nikki toward revenge and justice: she will do almost anything to see bad people punished. Her ability to hurt those wrongdoers, though, scares her. She wins with, and fights against, her ability to punish — sometimes her payback is as dark as the crimes that warrant it. For example, she wants to avenge her parents by killing their murderer: “I’d kill him exactly the way he killed them and I’d make absolutely sure he knew who was doing it.” This layering gives her more depth as a character, distinguishing her from the sexualized tomboy trope.

While pouring a martini, she quips, “My own taste in gin was a little like my taste in books. Contemporary could be great, but it was hard to beat the classics.” Her literary references pepper the novel, delighting any bibliophile. Allusions range from Steinbeck to the Arabian Nights to Goethe. Lelchuk’s own love of literature shines through Nikki, who, beyond owning a successful bookstore (solving crime is just a part-time gig), sees books as a vehicle for stepping into “[i]nfinite worlds, familiar and foreign, rows and rows of possibility and promise.” Beyond her book-loving musings, Nikki attracts readers with her quick wit and ever-present banter. She never misses a beat and narrates the story in a voice both clever and reflective. While driving by a San Jose strip mall, she muses, “Thirty or fifty years ago the whole ugly mess had probably been shaded and fragrant with orange groves and lemon trees. The thought made me question progress.” Lelchuk offers an intelligent, well-spoken, witty protagonist who leads us through the novel in a way that is both smooth and exciting, as if she’s always one step ahead.

The scenery itself adds intrigue to the writing. Lelchuk captures California in a way that feels genuine and nostalgic for anyone who has spent time in the state. He offers a taste of the Bay Area’s diversity of magnificent coastline, rising tech culture, agricultural history, and even the not-so-pleasant suburban sprawl. Readers are immersed in the ever-changing scenery as Nikki motorcycles between the luxurious, upper echelons of San Francisco and Monterey and the gritty underworlds of San Jose and Salinas. Lelchuk recreates the area, but not in a way that feels like he’s selling it — his voice feels like that of a knowing resident who recognizes that “California wasn’t all stunning coastlines and vistas. The state could be as ugly as anywhere else when it tried.”

Overall, One Got Away treats readers to a thrilling story that unwraps just like Highway 1, winding and bending, simultaneously enchanting and disenchanting readers with the beauty and darkness that coexist, in the state and in life.

Set in Los Angeles, The Lady Upstairs is, on the surface, another novel about a strong woman fighting bad men in California. Like Lelchuk’s NorCal, Halley Sutton’s resident knowledge of SoCal shines through in her debut novel. A graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, Sutton knows the city and captures its glitz and grime with a knowing wink: “That was the magic of Los Angeles: over time, the artificial became as historic as the true.” Among references to the Santa Ana winds, gridlock traffic, and heat, Sutton captures a devilish side to the City of Angels.

Reading The Lady Upstairs is like entering a new world where legality is thrown to the wind, where anyone is a target or a victim or both, and everyone has a dark side. Sutton turns up the heat until the very end, making for a sweltering, sexy read. The story is narrated by the intoxicating ­­— and often intoxicated — protagonist named Jo, a young woman who, like so many others, moved to Los Angeles with big dreams of success. After an ugly breakup, she leaves legal career paths and falls in with messy company, a team of blackmailers who work for the mysterious and anonymous Lady Upstairs to entrap Hollywood’s most despicable men — directors, actors, cops — in the act to extort them for money. With her co-worker and mentor, Lou, and the in-house photographer, Robert Jackal, they go after “bad men — cheaters, assholes, men who never heard a no” and play with “all those different ways to ruin an asshole’s life.” When Jo’s last case goes haywire and someone gets killed, the stakes grow, and Jo has to figure out how to get out before she’s caught with blood on her hands. While Nikki Griffin’s philosophy feels like an eye for an eye, Jo and her comrades’ is, explicitly, “an eye for an eye, and then a little extra so you never try it again.”

Jo is as powerful as Nikki, but her power lies in manipulation rather than brute force (although physical violence is not beyond her). Her perspective is jumpy and paranoid, zooming in and out of flashbacks, launching forward in anxiety — an unstable narrator for an ever-evolving plot. It’s jarring but ultimately rewarding; Jo’s narration is delightfully sarcastic, morbid, and filled with rich one-liners, such as, “If I believed every man who told me to trust him, I’d be pregnant,” or, “What was dinner and dress-up compared with bringing Hollywood’s richest scumbag to his knees?” Sutton mentions that Jo is pretty, but only as a tool for her in trapping powerful men in her web of blackmail.

More than Nikki, Jo is complicated: her backstory is only sprinkled here and there like breadcrumbs; her conscience is far more disheveled, spiraling, and what feels like honest. Her sexuality is never labeled but seems as wandering and fluid as her unplanned life. All that is constant with Jo is her motivation for self-preservation: to work an angle to get what she wants. She unfolds as a character just as the story does: mysteriously, changing at every turn. While Nikki feels like she always knows a little more than the reader, Jo feels like she’s brainstorming with you, and together you’ll figure a way out.

Sutton’s feminism feels a lot grittier than Lelchuk’s. While Nikki wants to save the day and restore peace, Jo wants to play with power for her own survival and personal gain. As a female author, Sutton seems to know that fighting for women’s rights is more than wanting fairness; it’s a struggle fueled by an irritation at having to fight in the first place and a desire for reparations for the aggression, inequality, abuse, and discrimination that women endure. The female characters capture this feeling and then dramatize it by wanting men to literally and figuratively pay for it. While in bed with Robert, Jo’s sometimes lover, she likes the feeling of domination: “I liked the feel of him underneath my hands, and I wished they were larger, like a man’s, so I could really hurt him.”

The characters in The Lady Upstairs have been hurt by men; they are looking for more than closing the wage gap.

It’s hard to call either of these books truly feminist. Both make moves at feminism and offer variations of a badass female protagonist who is nothing like a damsel in distress. Still, Lelchuk’s Nikki feels superhero-y and maintains a sexualized male-gaze feel, and it’s hard to say if Sutton’s Jo is truly a feminist character either. Jo herself does not treat women well, and she trains girls to seduce men and use sex to make money. As Lou and Jo blackmail men, do they truly gain power or strip the men of theirs? Does the novel at large change society’s lasting perceptions of women as sexual objects or empower readers with what could be female role models? No. Still, The Lady Upstairs does make other feminist attempts. The sisterhood between Lou and Jo, while complicated and at times toxic, also exemplifies truths about how women can work together to create change. One of their maxims: “Never love anyone more than yourself.” Another: “Never trust women who don’t like other women.” While these characters do hurt each other, they also on some level demonstrate how women can empower each other to take up space and speak up. In the era of #MeToo, this message feels resonant and relevant.

The Lady Upstairs and One Got Away entice fans with the classic surprising plot, quick pace, and a California flair, while also offering engaging female protagonists who are in charge and who aren’t afraid to go after what they want. Despite their uneven views of women in a crime-stained world, both are delicious reads that you’ll want to burn through.


Savy Janssen teaches high school English and reads and writes voraciously on the island of Maui.