Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Femme Fatale" by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman has always been on my To-Read list. I know of her, who her main heroine is (Tess Monaghan), and, more importantly, where she lives (Baltimore). She has become synonymous with that city just as Pelecanos has with DC, Connelly and Chandler with LA, or Lehane with Boston. Just last month, at Bouchercon in Baltimore, the native daughter walked away with three awards, all for her novel What the Dead Know. As I wait for that audiobook to arrive from my library, I decided to take a read at a short story Lippman wrote for Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, edited by Duane Swierczynski (Busted Flush Press).

“Femme Fatale” is the last story is a sub-section entitled “Killers and Cons.” You meet 68-year-old (“No, I’m really 61.”) Mona in LeisureWorld, a retirement community and immediately, you begin to wonder: is Mona a killer or a con? Mona doesn’t fit in with the merry folks at LeisureWorld. She’s moderately well-off after her fourth (although she convinced the man he was her second marriage) but not so well off as to afford the kind of lifestyle she thinks she deserves. More importantly, Mona has nothing to do, nothing to occupy her time. Until she meets Bryon.

In a Starbucks, Bryon (“With an ‘o,’ like the poet, only the ‘r’ comes first.”) mistakes Mona for a famous starlet. Even when it’s proven she’s not the former star, Bryon keeps after her. He’s an independent filmmaker and he’d like to get a few shots of Mona. He convinces her to come to his studio—“a large locker in one of those storage places.”—and model for him. Cautiously, he gets her to pose in her birthday suit. Mona is shocked at first until she learns people pay to see what she has.
“People pay?” [Mona asks.]
Another shy nod. “It’s sort of a. . . niche within the industry.”
“It’s my niche,” he said. “It’s what I like. I make other films about, um, things I don’t like so much. But I love watching truly seasoned women teach young men about life.”
“And you’d pay for this?”
“Of course.”
“How much?”
“Some. Enough.”
“Just to look? Just to see me, as I am?”
“A little for that. More for . . . more.”
“How much?” Mona repeated. She was keen to know her worth.
Mona’s worth gets established as the story progresses. She’s always liked the looks of her own body and gets quite fond of performing for the camera. Later, she realizes there’s more money to be made if only Bryon will let her in. When he doesn’t, well, let’s just remember the title of this sub-section: “Killers and Cons.” You’ll have to read the story to find out which one is Mona.

Prose-wise, I particularly enjoyed the way Lippman used ellipses. She keenly conveyed Bryon’s hesitancy at broaching the subject of his films to Mona and, later, Lippman uses them to show Mona’s adept acting abilities.

Lippman is sly in the way she introduces the true subject of her story. And, when it clicks for Mona, as in the passage above, you can just see her hesitant eyes sharpen, her brain working over the angles. Work them over, she does, and, by the end of the story, she finally has something with which to occupy her time. And she’s happy. You’ll be happy, too, after you’ve read this fun little noir gem.


David Cranmer said...

Scott, you have some damn fine reviews. I have A Hell Of A Woman also from Busted Flush and am still finishing it. I tend to read collections like this slow because I hate to see them end. Sounds silly I know. Thanks to your review I will speed up the process and order Damn Near Dead.

Scott D. Parker said...


Thanks for the praise. You do a fine job yourself. I own Hell of a Woman and have put DND on my Christmas list. Most of the stories I've read in both anthologies are good. It's a testament to David Thompson of Busted Flush Press to get such high quality contributors. In 2011, David and his wife will be hosting Bouchercon and I'll be certain to be there. Still want to get to Indy next year, though.

David Thompson said...

Thanks, David & Scott, for the nice comments about DAMN NEAR DEAD and A HELL OF A WOMAN. Duane Swierczynski gets most (all?) of the DND credit, for compiling such a stellar line-up. I'm particularly excited about Lippman's "Femme Fatale" ending up collected in her own anthology, HARDLY KNEW HER, new from Morrow this month... I highly recommend this collection because Lippman is a master at short fiction.