“Is there a distinctive female noir?” asks Oates (The Pursuit, 2019, etc.) in her introduction. This collection may not settle that question, but it goes a long way toward supplying candidates for an emerging canon.
There are 15 stories here, all but one of them new, and half a dozen new poems. From Aimee Bender’s enigmatic “Firetown,” in which a female private eye searches for a missing husband and cat on behalf of a client whose motives are even more mysterious than the disappearance, to Cassandra Khaw’s fablelike “Mothers, We Dream,” in which the man who’s miraculously survived a shipwreck finds himself hemmed in by both his female interrogator and his female associates, these stories show empowered women either running roughshod over men or ignoring them entirely. Even the heroines of Livia Llewellyn’s “One of These Nights,” S.J. Rozan’s “A History of the World in Five Objects,” S.A. Solomon’s “Impala,” and Sheila Kohler’s “Miss Martin,” all victims of abusive men, find unexpected ways to transform their victimhood into violent agency. Lisa Lim’s heavily illustrated “The Hunger” dramatizes a savage mode of female mourning; Edwidge Danticat’s “Please Translate,” first published in 2014, collects 41 frantic phone messages from a woman to the husband who’s run off with their son; Margaret Atwood’s six poems include meditations on female werewolves and the maternal side of the Sirens; Oates’ own “Assassin” follows a woman who methodically hatches and executes a plan to decapitate the prime minister. The women here are equally comfortable—that is, equally disturbing—when they’re cast as reluctant detectives, as in Steph Cha’s “Thief,” witnesses to possible crimes, as in Elizabeth McCracken’s “An Early Specimen,” accused murderers, as in Valerie Martin’s “Il Grifone,” or potential healers, as in Lucy Taylor’s “Too Many Lunatics” and Jennifer Morales’ “The Boy Without a Bike.” The punchline of the one story with a male lead, Bernice L. McFadden’s “OBF, Inc.,” entirely justifies its outlier status.
Not every story will be to every taste, but the average is high enough to satisfy readers of all genders.