Reviewed by Kate Horsley
Is noir just a series of clichés? Is it no more than a set of fashionably dark poses, a slickly commercial exploitation of pretended despair? “What She Offered” is a story constructed out of the best-known of all noir clichés. The narrator is haunting the bars when a femme fatale makes her entrance: “The suddenly, she walked through the door.” Dressed in black except for a string of pearls, she is “the old B movie stereotype of the dangerous woman.” She wears her hat at just the right angle, walks the rain-slicked streets, seems to offer “the lure of a secret past”, lights a cigarette and blinks her eyes in languidly. She invites him back to her place.
The suspense in Cook’s story comes from the tension between cliché and reality. The narrator things he has her pegged. “She is noir in the worst possible sense.” She is only offering a few melodramatic touches meant to suggest that she is a dangerous woman. He expects anticlimax and disappointment. As the narrative unfolds, however, he increasingly comes to suspect that he knows less and less about what lies behind the woman’s performance. When they exchange notes at the bar, her answer stuns and angers him. When she offers him a suicide pact, he is sure that “for all the ‘dangerous’ talk” it will be no more than “a brief erotic episode”. She seems to be “a character she’d made up”, but as the story plays out, he realizes that he encountering, possibly for the first time in his life, reality rather than fiction.
“What She Offered” is ultimately about our confrontation with death. There are clear echoes of that darkest of all noir novels, Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, with its pathos-filled version of the woman-as-temptress, tempting the narrator not to sex but to nihilism and suicide. In Cook’s story, however, instead of a bemused young man, we have as the protagonist a cynical, world-weary writer of “novel after novel” in which he has bleakly dissected the lives of lost and helpless people for whom there are no happy endings. He is certain that he has seen to the very bottom of things, and imagines himself to be “the one guy who understood that to see things in full light was the greatest darkness one could know”.
The femme fatale he encounters is a perfect match for him – not only a living noir cliché but an astute literary critic. She knows more about life than he does and, what’s more, knows his books inside out: “’I’ve read your books. They’re really dreadful…The writing is beautiful…But the idea is really bad.’” She scribbles a note awarding him the grade she thinks he deserves for his fashionable existential gloom: C+. It is all a question of truth, and we watch in fascination as the femme fatale constructs her critique, confronting the self-publicising poses of noir chic and with the reality of death as it is understood by “a truly dangerous woman”.
Kate Horsley runs the site Crime Culture.