Powerless Victims, Femme Fatales or Avenging Angels?

Investigating Cambodian Women’s Agency in Phnom Penh Noir


Anna Pasolini

Universities of Milan and Pavia


This paper investigates some of the transformations undergone by noir fiction when its plots are set in a postcolonial background, and the impact of these changes on the representations of local people’s history and experiences through the analysis of the ways in which its traditional female character-types are portrayed in the anthology Phnom Penh Noir (Moore 2012) — a collection of fifteen short “noir” stories set in the Cambodian capital and written by British, American, Italian and Cambodian writers.[1]

Re-telling past and present otherness and transforming (postcolonial) noir fiction

In contemporary times, postcolonial crime fiction re-writes the notion of ‘otherness’, especially when it comes to the perception of fear, danger and threat associated with the other’s difference, which has always been a pivotal element in classical crime fiction. Therefore, besides introducing disorder that must be brought back to — what is discursively constructed as — the norm, in postcolonial crime fiction the other is loaded with further disturbing features linked to the disruption of sameness and to ideas of contamination and pollution. Without completely subverting their functions and literary conventions, then, formulaic genres like noir and crime fiction thus develop and adapt in order to become vehicles for new ideologies, criticism, identities, and forms of resistance (Cawelty 1976; Knight 1980).

As the analysis of some of its stories shows, Phnom Penh Noir performs the functions usually assigned to the noir genre, that is portraying the dark sides of the life of the metropolis as well as of its inhabitants, especially of those people whose dwellings and occurrences are rarely accounted for (Amici 2012; Ascari 2007; Raymond 1992). However, it also exposes questions related to postcolonialism, since the noir stories represent the life of contemporary Phnom Penh and in so doing reveal the dynamics of subordination that still affect some underprivileged and normally unreported categories like women and children as a result of (Western) sex tourism.

In the anthology, the traumatic experience of Cambodian people in the aftermath of the Killing Fields is retold and the unspeakable hardships associated with the Communist dictatorship are given voice through the medium of noir fiction. Past and present are engaged in a difficult dialogue, as the lives of contemporary Cambodian people are shown to be haunted by the ghosts of the victims of past violence, whose memory was often removed from official accounts and now demands to be resurfaced. In this process of retelling the official ‘grande histoire’ through ‘petit récits’ (Lyotard 1979), noir — which is by definition a particularly malleable genre — is further transformed, and its conventions are shown to be manipulated, re-contextualised in an unusual backdrop and adapted, but always in the light of its social function.[2]

The Cambodian setting of the stories could be considered among the main reasons why the generic conventions of noir — already difficult to describe systematically — are further destabilised and transformed. Traditionally, indeed, noir and hardboiled narrations were set in a Western metropolis, and were thus privileged media for the transmission and enforcement of ‘common Euro-Americocentric ideological and literary expectations’ (Matzke and Mühleisen 2006, pp. 6–7), whether they had to do with the investigator’s features and techniques, with the way the culprits were dealt with or, more broadly, with the discursively constructed ideologies and values which underlay — and were handed down through — their plots. The postcolonial setting of the stories, instead, requires the genre and its conventions to be amended first and foremost because of the introduction of a whole new set of issues, such as ‘particular tropes in “ethnic” crime fiction which play an important role in the construction of a community’s identities’, discourses of ‘”’resistance” “subversion” and “ethnicity”’ (ibid: 7-8), an even stronger link between place and the subject’s identity and struggle between master narratives and personal accounts, as well as the dialogue, contamination and hybridisation with/of Western identities and literary traditions.

As a closer investigation of some selected stories from Phnom Pehn Noir will disclose, the collection succeeds in exposing postcolonial issues of power imbalance and the need to rewrite and re-signify Cambodian history and the bygones of its population anew. In other words, through the stories ghost memories of violence and suffering resurface under new, individual perspectives, which account for the experiences of those who used to be powerless. Furthermore, these fictional accounts also reveal that oppression is still at work, above all when it comes to women and children, who are kept powerless through new mechanisms of abuse which come from abroad. More specifically, after being subject to an oppressive dictatorship that did not take into account the specificity of their needs and their place within the social fabric (Mam, 1975), they are now the most vulnerable targets of the postcolonial plague of sex tourism.

My contention is that, as Knight has already underlined with reference to Australian crime fiction, these Cambodian noir stories help ‘recognis[e] quasi-colonial oppressions – especially those of gender and race’ (Knight in Matzke and Mühleisen 2006, p. 18), and in so doing also increase awareness of socio-cultural as well as political matters. While the stories expose the oppression and the suffering endured by the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge regime to contemporary times, they also reveal that some categories, namely women and children, were and still are subject to subtle but effective alienating practices which ‘other’ them in a number of different ways.

Despite Phnom Penh Noir collecting very diverse stories, which belong to different crime traditions ranging from the classic detective story to the hardboiled, they are labelled ‘noir’ by the editor Christopher G. Moore due to some relevant qualities they share. ‘Noir has no one-size-fits-all definition’ Moore emphasises (2012, p. xvi), therefore this collection which deals with the ‘unifying theme[s]’ of noir — that is the circumstances of ‘those suffering injustice and unfairness, ordinary people driven into a corner as they watch their hopes, dreams and lives evaporate without a trace’ (ibid.) — also contributes to remoulding its profile while at the same time leaving traces of some of the genre’s distinctive features.

First and foremost, the book is an anthology, not merely set in, but that speaks about a city. The metropolis is a protagonist of the narratives, which sketch accurate portraits of the urban milieu while telling the stories of its dwellers. As Moore remarks in the introduction to the collection: ‘The history of Phnom Penh qualifies it to be placed at the top of any list of cities deserving of a noir anthology. What other city in modern times was emptied of all of its people at gunpoint, abandoned, and left as a ghost town?’ (ibid, p. xii)

Secondly, the stories intentionally perform a social function, as the editor acknowledges that ‘I invited a select group of writers and artists to provide their take on the genre as a lens for viewing Cambodian life (…) seeking to realize the full range of possibilities of noir’ (ibid, p. xiii).

Moore’s appreciation of noir as a genre which endeavours to understand and represent reality so that the dark, concealed sides of urban life are exposed, matches Raymond’s views on the topic. According to the English writer, whose fictional autobiography The Hidden Files is still deemed one of the best theoretical accounts of the noir (‘black novel’) in literature, noir fiction describes the stories of men and women who have been purposefully forgotten by society. These people are pushed to the margins because they embody the behaviours and experiences that need to be banished for the ideal, healthy society promised by campaigning politicians to work. They are usually the inhabitants of urban peripheries, of the decaying buildings where the disease of criminality develops and spreads out of social unease and lack of alternatives: ‘The black novel (…) exists to get people to see what true despair (…) really is.’ The genre makes its purpose to investigate reality ‘as deeply and thoroughly as possible’ (Raymond 1992, pp. 97-98), and in particular to ‘observe the street’ (ibid, p. 134). The genre casts new light on crime and reveals its tragic nature, that it is born out of, as well as propagates, ‘violence, misery and despair’ (ibid.).

In addition, noir investigates and gives voice to petit récits, that is, it amends and questions the official history written by those who wield power through the numerous personal and localised accounts of the unimportant people who lived and made it. Consequently, the master narrative produced by the powerful is no longer the only available version of what happened; rather it is complemented, and in some cases challenged, by small narratives which refute and add lived experience to the chronicle of the most significant large-scale events. Such features of the noir are particularly important when it comes to a place like Cambodia, which after suffering the French colonisation was subject to an oppressive communist regime. The petit récits narrated in Phnom Penh Noir, then, are the result of ‘writing that is about now, writing about where and how […the outer fringe of the population] live, and writing that describes what they are up against in their daily lives, and why’ (ibid, p. 137).

Another pivotal feature of noir reproduced in the collection is the need to preserve and transmit memory. What too often happens with official written historical accounts, indeed, is that they tend to erase what is unpleasant, to ‘forget horror that is there’ (ibid, pp. 181-182) — a trend which noir stories are there to counter. In Phnom Penh Noir this effort is particularly evident, as its narratives take advantage of the crime plot to reveal some forgotten details about the Cambodian past, such as anecdotes about the Khmer Rouge rule. They also expose some of the new troubles caused by the influence of Western Countries over Cambodian politics, like episodes of corruption and abuse of power linked to foreign NGOs.

As for sex tourism and child abuse, on which the analysis that follows is chiefly focussed, it is worth mentioning the example of the only story written by a woman, which is a telling instance of the problems brought to Cambodia by foreigners. Dark Truths by Bapha Phorn deals with a British reporter, Mark, who fled to Cambodia in order to go back to anonymity after being implicated in a case of child abuse, and then has to face his faults when he is assigned a case of paedophilic tourism there. The story opens with the trial of a German man, who is convicted ‘for having sex with four Cambodian children aged eleven to fifteen’ (Moore 2012, p. 164). Bapha Phorn — the first woman from Cambodia to have received the Courage in Journalism Award — goes on to denounce the stark lightness of the sentence through the words of her narrator:

‘The money wasn’t a problem for Wolfgang, but the same couldn’t be said of the “time”. Eight years was a big chunk to pull out of a man’s life. But what he’d done to the kids had destroyed a lot more than eight years (…) A life had ten cycles of eight years. An eight-year sentence had been light’ (ibid, p. 165).

And when the protagonist Mark is assigned the case of yet another paedophile, the ordinariness and extent of the phenomenon of child abuse in Cambodia is conveyed by the mood of the conversation between the reporters:

'Cheer up. Today is your lucky day. Remember that French pedo we talked about the other day?'
'Yeah. I have a vague memory of that conversation.'   
French, German, Australian, English…the list of nationalities involved in such cases had no end (ibid, p. 166).

Mark’s reticence, due to his previous experience of ‘looking the other way’ (ibid, p. 180) when witnessing a friend abusing children, is countered by the stark determination of his editor-in-chief:

'Raksa told me you were playing hard to get. Get your ass down to the courthouse and find out what that Frenchman was doing with those kids. Am I making myself clear?'
'You’ve got a hang-up. That’s not my problem,' said Mark. (…)
Kim exploded: 'For God’s sake! These monsters come to Cambodia to abuse children, and I’m supposed to think that’s acceptable? Just let it go? Fuck that! I want you to find out what the cops are doing in this case. Ask the cops what they are doing to stop men like this from ruining the lives of kids. Unless, of course, you don’t see pedophiles as a problem (ibid, p. 166).

Significantly, as this passage suggests, for a black narrative to fully fulfil its function, awareness and criticism must be followed by action. That is to say, by defining evil, and ‘by demonstrating everything in our society that is negative’ (Raymond 1992, p. 144) black narratives contribute to destroy it. As a result, ‘the black novel is a means of making the onlooker become part of what he observes in the belief that he will take action and end it’ (ibid, p. 183) even when the police do not step in because the victims are irrelevant.

This last point is of particular importance if linked to the postcolonial setting of the collection and with the issues of sex tourism and child abuse disclosed by its stories. As Bapha Phorn emphasises in her Dark Truths exposing these plagues is the first step towards actually fighting them.

Representing gender in postcolonial noir: re-voicing traditional female character-types

As Matzke and Mühleisen stress in their introduction to a collection of critical essays on postcolonial crime fiction, the genre has ‘transgressed national boundaries’ (2006, p. 3) since its early days. Furthermore, there is an entangled link between crime fiction and the imperial enterprise because ‘stories of order and disorder in the colonial era – in personal narratives, travel writing and the emerging genre of crime fiction – (…) offered a particular perspective on the “other” who could be seen both as a threat to and a mirror of the imperial power’ (ibid, p. 4).

Besides offering a representation of Cambodian society and people from multiple perspectives, Phnom Pehn Noir also performs the function carried out by other contemporary postcolonial crime stories, that is, it questions the social order through alternative notions of justice (Matzke and Mühleisen, 2006). By often lacking the final traditional reestablishment of the order disturbed by the crime, the noir narratives of the anthology, like other similar postcolonial texts, ‘suggest that power and authority can be investigated through the magnifying glass of other knowledges, against the local or global mainstream, past and present, or against potential projections of a dominant group and a (neo-)imperial West’ (ibid, p. 5). Even the few examples in the collection where the criminal plot is disentangled and the culprit assigned to justice, a feeling is left that what happened will leave a scar and that what has been re-established cannot be called ‘order’. On more than one occasion, for instance, the main characters are killed because they fail to bridge the cultural gap, to understand the Cambodian way of dealing with things.

What some scholars are particularly interested in when it comes to otherness and issues of gender in postcolonial literature — most likely following Spivak’s arguments — is the extent to which the other is given the possibility of speaking and accounting for itself (see, for example, Johnson 1999). Spivak maintains that the subaltern are silenced — among other reasons — because they are represented ‘in discourse in which they have no speaking role’ (Maggio 2007, p. 422). Borrowing Maggio’s phrase, it is my contention that Phnom Penh Noir succeeds, if not in voicing, at least in allowing the other to ‘be heard’. This is possible because it gathers together Cambodian as well as foreign accounts, resulting in fragmented pictures of Cambodian urban and human landscapes from without as well as from within.

The stories that I am about to introduce feature female protagonists who belong to traditional crime fiction’s typical characters, which I have grouped into three main categories: powerless victims, femme fatales and avenging angels. As these female characters fail to escape the generic conventions of the types they embody in the stories, likewise the actual women they stand for are not yet able to free themselves from the substantial forms of social oppression, which caused their fictional failure or defeat.

The first story taken into consideration is Play with Fire. A Sergio Biancardi Mystery by Giancarlo Narciso. It features an outcast former detective acting in the story as a sort of private eye, Sergio Biancardi, and a femme fatale who tries to trick him into a trap through seduction. The female protagonist, Fabiana, is the wife of Biancardi’s employer. She tries to convince him that her husband wants to kill her only in order to deceive both of them. She pretends to be her husband’s accomplice by tricking the private eye into fighting with him so as to accuse him of burning down their restaurant. At the same time, however, she is also working behind her husband’s back in order to get rid of him and thus claim the insurance payment on the restaurant for herself, using Biancardi as a scapegoat. In the end the woman is outwitted by her husband’s Cambodian handyman, Abu, who understands her machinations and kills her. Even though Abu is not able to save his boss, who gets killed, he manages to save Biancardi.

As has already been pointed out, the woman reminds one of the typical femme fatale of the hardboiled tradition, as her descriptions throughout the story show:

…a woman in a turquoise one-piece bathing suit was lying on her back over the yellow limestone tiles. Good, lean body with well shaped muscles, brown hair, and an attractive, slightly aggressive face with wide cheekbones and full lips […] she was still, as though she was asleep. But I felt her eyes studying me from behind the lenses. (Moore 2012, p. 190)

'Won’t you sit down with me?'
I hesitated, and she was fast to seize the moment to her advantage.
'Come on. I don’t bite,” she whispered in a husky voice, then smiled, pointing at the empty chair at her side. I sat’ (ibid, p. 193).

She was all smiles, fluttering of eyes, languid glances. Somewhere inside a voice started whispering, telling me not to stay, to get out of there fast, while I still could. I knew I was playing with fire’ (ibid, p. 199).

Similar descriptions remind one of the stereotypical representation of the femme fatale in the hardboiled, who more often than not stands for ‘a projection of male fear and desire’ or ‘a politically forceful symbol of unencumbered power’ (Grossman 2007, p. 19). This association of femininity with sexuality and the dangers of seduction invariably leads to representing woman as a ‘dangerous body, to be labelled and tamed by social roles and institutions’ (ibid.).  Meaningfully enough, ‘readings of and references to the femme fatale miss the extent to which her role depends on the theme of female independence, often misconceiving her motives and serving mainly to confound our understanding of the gender fantasies that surround these so-called bad women’ (ibid, p. 19). Fabiana’s situation is exactly that of a woman who took advantage of her beauty and youth to achieve social improvement and wealth, but then found herself trapped in the role of a trophy-wife in a country where women are powerless and still struggling to gain basic human rights for themselves and their children. Fabiana’s struggle is in fact the struggle for agency and independence of a woman who cannot free herself from binary oppositions and established ideals of gender roles and relationships. Thus the only way she can picture of improving her condition is to take on the role of the femme fatale, to try to obtain power from murder and deception, which ironically are the features patriarchal discourses fear and condemn in threateningly beautiful women, who are depicted as ‘lethal seductress[es]’ who ‘abjure(…) traditional romance and passive domesticity, choosing instead to apply [their] sexuality to homicidal plots in the service of greed’ (Boozer 2000, p. 20).

Although the hardboiled plot and its characters are rather straightforward and predictable, the story can be said to perform a social function because it openly hints at some delicate issues related to life in Cambodia, like the narrator’s remark that ‘they [the waitresses working at the restaurant] were all young, like most people in a country where nearly a whole generation had been erased’ (Moore 2012, p. 190). Moreover, all the main characters are, to some extent, outcasts: Fabiana and her husband are Italian immigrants who opened a business in Cambodia. Biancardi is Italian as well, and he has troubles with his visa, so is living in Cambodia illegally (and getting hold of a false passport is the main reason why he accepts to be involved with Fabiana’s husband in the first place). Abu, too, could be considered an outsider despite being Cambodian, since he belongs to the Muslim minority; as Biancardi observes, ‘Right or wrong, a Muslim in a country where ninety-nine per cent of the population is Buddhist tends to feel he’s being discriminated against’ (ibid: 198). Besides the character’s marginality, another instance where social issues are addressed is Fabiana’s invective against the police who do not care about the abuse of women: ‘The police? In this country? For a woman who’s being beaten up? They wouldn’t lift a finger. They don’t move for their own women, let alone a foreign one. They might drop by tomorrow, when it will be too late’ (ibid, p. 209).

The topic of female abuse is tackled more overtly in the second selected story, Hell in the City, by the young Cambodian author Suong Mak. Here the issues of rape, drug abuse and criminality in those abandoned parts of the city where criminals inhabit decaying buildings are tackled through the representation of women as helpless victims. As the writer admits in an interview to Clair Knox (2012), denouncing female abuse is a deliberate purpose of his story: ‘I’m very anxious and troubled about the situation of rape and the rate it is happening and I wanted to express that in some way…it is increasing and it affects our culture deeply’. To which he adds: ‘I want the people and the government to think much more about this problem and to find a way to solve it’ (ibid.). Once again, then, noir fiction performs a declared social function.

The story introduces the case of a girl who is raped by an older man in one of the abandoned buildings in Phnom Penh. Interestingly, it opens with a long description of the city, as if it, too, was among the protagonists:

It was nine o’clock at night, not so late in the capital city. In particular the area was noted for containing Cambodia’s leading department stores: but next to the luxury stores with their little crowds of people were wilderness areas, dozens of buildings built after waiting for the lease purchase but now abandoned following the sudden economic collapse. The collapse had not only destroyed the riel currency but also pricked the bubble economy, filling the city with such buildings (Moore 2012, p. 280).

The victim is the simple-minded daughter of a woman who sells noodles in a stall and who was abandoned by her husband. That being so, her story would easily become just another irrelevant and soon-to-be-forgotten case of rape, and the rapist would surely be able to get away with what he did:

Nine o’clock was also not too late for selling noodles in a residential community. A woman, sixty years old perhaps, was cooking, but her eyes strayed often up the street, looking for someone. Her withered old hands, ugly from hard work, tossed the noodles almost automatically as all the while she was thinking about her twenty-two-year-old daughter, who […] was not a clever child. Obedient and kind, but silly all her life – some were born that way. On the surface she was normal, but after talking with her for a while, people guessed that she had some kind of problem. […] the girl had also been born slightly malformed, another shortcoming and another punishment of karma (ibid, p. 283)

In other words, the girl is the utmost victim: she is born in a poor, irrelevant household, was abandoned by her father and is physically and mentally impaired. On top of this, after the rape, she is also a victim of people’s indifference, because when she is wandering about in shock trying to get back home, half naked and bleeding, she is pushed aside by everyone she meets: ‘As she stumbled, she was not alone. She was faintly conscious of exclamations, of people changing their paths to avoid her, accelerating their pace when she stuck out her hands to ask for help’ (ibid, p. 287).

Luckily, against all odds, the case gains resonance in the press because the rapist used a teaser, and a resolute TV news director pieces together the story and devotes to it more efforts than does the police. Her investigation, besides helping find the culprit, also discloses numerous instances of Cambodian social inequality and injustice. These include the problems of public hospitals, where doctors are cynical and help is given only when they are sure that treatments can be paid for, and the intricate link between poverty and victimhood:

Many victims said the same thing. They all feared continued disgrace. They knew only of inequality, exploitation, and assault – the things they felt belonged to the poor. The mother and daughter lived in a world without opportunity, and fear stalked them in a way that may seem unreasonable to those in better circumstances (ibid, p. 292).

Another interesting matter disclosed by the story is the multi-layered oppression suffered by poor women, who, even when they are able to make their voices heard may unconsciously be deceived or taken advantage of by those who pretend to care about telling their stories but, in reality, are simply interested in making headline news: ‘The TV reporters assured them that they would interview the girl with her face concealed. And the mother didn’t know that she could refuse’ (ibid.). Although in the end the rapist is caught, it is clear that order has not been re-established, as both mother and daughter ‘could not resist the pain at the depths of their hearts. They could not forget. The mother couldn’t afford to carry the pain and trauma at the surface. But at night she no longer allowed her child to leave the house. She could never be replaced’ (ibid, p. 306).

The last story considered here draws together issues of sex tourism and child abuse, and shows an instance of active resistance on women’s part, where women actively fight back and become avenging angels, even if once again they must succumb. The story is a sad example of how the subaltern try to be empowered and to retaliate against their oppression through violence, but are slaughtered like annoying but easily destroyed parasites. A Coven of Snakes by Bob Bergin deals with an investigation carried out by a civilian analyst of the US army in Thailand in order to stop what seems to be the homicidal deed of a serial killer. The way the killings are performed prompts discussion of the Killing Fields, and allows the reader to dwell on this dark part of the Cambodian history: ‘I knew about the KR all right. That was what we called the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists. Everybody knew about the Killing Fields. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for millions of deaths, for cruelty on a scale beyond human comprehension’ (ibid, p. 339).

At first, the US officers think that the particularly cruel and heinous MO of the killer could be involved with the Khmer Rouge: ‘”(…) The killings are brutal, cruel. We found two victims together. One was forced to kill the other – with a shovel. And there’s always mutilation”. “Sounds sort of like the Khmer Rouge”’ (ibid,  p. 341-342). What emerges instead is the endeavour of a group of women, who kill foreign tourists suspected of abusing children through a deathly ritual dance.

The account of the investigation given by the US analyst exposes some past and current injustices suffered by the Cambodian people. As to the murder investigation itself, for example, one of the Cambodian policemen remarks:

'…everything is being looked at more carefully now. Not so long ago, violent death in Cambodia was commonplace. It was the way things were. No one ever looked for motives. There was hatred and violence. That was enough' (ibid, p. 344).

Furthermore, the issue of torture is also addressed, as the narrator walks away when he witnesses the police resorting to torture while interviewing a suspect: ‘as we walked to the office where the Cambodian cops were going to do their interview, Freddy said: 'Ah, before we go in there, you should know, ah … they use things here. You know, to secure cooperation' (ibid, p. 346-347). The procedure is then explained with a culturally-specific justification: 'It’s difficult. This is a society where facts are relative. What a fact means and how it’s handled depends on the circumstances. The circumstances are related to how much trouble a fact can get you into' (ibid, p. 348).

The main social problems at stake in this text, nevertheless, are sex tourism and child abuse: ‘a lot of the tourism in Cambodia right now is sex-driven. Children are part of that’ (ibid, p. 350). When the narrator asks a bar girl to help him penetrate the world of sex tourism, he is led by the woman into the darkest of Cambodian alleys (ibid, p. 359). Despite his good intentions, the man, whose collaboration with the police is classified, is paradoxically suspected of child abuse. This ironically helps him to solve the riddle, as he realises that the bargirl actually belongs to a sect of women who exploit an ancient ritual; a mesmerising dance which occurs as a prelude to the killing of foreign men, whom they suspect of abusing children. These men are lured into watching a sexy dance in the ruins of an isolated temple, where women dance half naked and take advantage of the men’s distraction to kill them. According to what is revealed in the epilogue of the story, women decided to deal with the problem of child abuse directly, misleading the police when interviewed, because the cops did not seem to be able or willing to deal with the problem. With regard to this, the protagonist himself wonders:

‘There’s one point I wasn’t certain about. In several files it appeared that the Cambodian cops suspected the victims were abusers of children. Two of the Americans, in fact, have child abuse on their records that were obtained through the embassy. But that line of inquiry was never strongly followed. I wondered why’ (ibid, p. 350).

After all, his is exactly the reason why those women decided to take action, to avenge the countless abused children too often forgotten by the authorities:

The women (…) were trying to destroy the evil they saw around them, the evil others bring here. (…) We are dealing with the local chapter here. There are others in Phnom Penh and other parts of Cambodia. There will be more victims as time goes on (ibid, p. 372).

But who are the victims in this case? In the eyes of the police the victims are the murdered tourists who, in turn, abused women and children. From the dancers/executioners’ point of view, the victims are without doubt abused Cambodian children. All in all, however, the women themselves prove to be the ultimate victims, since in the end the avenging angels are trapped inside the temple and slaughtered by the policemen, just as the snakes were at the beginning of the story.

The parallel between the community of women and the coven of poisonous snakes, which inspires the title of the story, is not accidental. On the one hand, it hints at the biblical image of the woman as temptress who lures men into sinning with her cunning seductive strategies. On the other, it surely points to the same fear of female sexuality that haunts the figure of the femme fatale. In this case, nonetheless, the beautiful but treacherous woman is also rehabilitated, although her agency ultimately leads her to failure. The deceitful and murderous plots of the fatal women described in the story are not guided by greed or lust for power, nor even by rebellion or the search for freedom and independence, but by maternal protection towards the abused children of their country, if not of their womb.

Hence, the ways in which the three apparently diverse female character-types of noir fiction are portrayed in these stories reveal that, regardless of their role as femme fatales, avenging angels or powerless victims, these women share common features. Notwithstanding their ability to wield power, the degree of freedom they enjoy in society, their status and their ability to act and even fight against what threatens them and those who, like them, are underprivileged, they more or less overtly struggle against a system that makes them subaltern and which invariably defeats them. However, in the process of telling their personal, dark stories of violence and abuse, the history of their country and of their people is re-told and revised, thus the narrations become precious occasions for rewriting memories which have been repressed, and for giving voice to those who have been kept silent for too long. More to the point, the stories collected in Phnom Penh Noir show that not only can the noir genre set in a postcolonial backdrop disclose the struggles, failures and successes of the colonised as a cohesive category, but it can also emphasise the inequalities subsisting among the oppressed themselves — in this instance those particularly related to gender. Last, but not least, in the process of re-telling the past, of keeping memories alive and of creating new stories, the genre shows how it can transform and reinvent itself, incorporating new elements from different traditions, so as to be re-contextualised without ceasing to perform its function of critically exposing and challenging established discourses and hierarchies of power. In spite of their status of foreigners — thus apparently more empowered — femmes fatales, of poor, utterly powerless women belonging to the lower social strata, of fighters who actively try to avenge the helpless ones, the female protagonists of these stories perhaps do not succeed in overcoming oppression, but certainly manage to make their voices be heard.



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[1] Specifically: Bob Bergin, John Burdett, James Grady, Roland Joffé, Kosal Khiev, Suong Mak, Christopher Minko, Christopher G. Moore, Giancarlo Narciso, Andrew Nette, Bopha Phorn, Richard Rubenstein, Christopher West, Neil Wilford, Prabda Yoon.

[2] Interestingly enough, the commercialisation of the book, too, serves a social cause, as both the authors and Heaven Lake Press (HLP) — the Cambodian small independent publisher — decided to share their revenues and royalties with two NGOs that help Cambodian orphans and street children.


Anna Pasolini is Associate Lecturer of Cultural Studies and of English Civilization at the Universities of Milan and Pavia. She works in the area of Cultural Studies and Gender Studies, particularly on the representation of gender(ed) and transcultural identities in noir fiction and on feminist revisions of traditional fairy tales. She has published on Derek Raymond, David Cronenberg and Lionel Shriver, and is author of a monograph on Angela Carter (Bodies That Bleed. Metamorphosis in Angela Carter’s Fairy Tales, 2016). She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Other Modernities and of the Research Group The Criminal Hero (University of Milan).


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 1 2017
Editors: Christiana Gregoriou, David Platten, Gigliola Sulis