Apr 4 2012 2:30pm

Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam Is a Noir Private Investigator

Double Indemnity movie still“I told her the world was full of nice people. I’d have hated to try to prove it to her, but I said it, anyway.”

A Hell of A Woman by Jim Thompson

Many fans of Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series have likely finished the latest book in the series, Sacrificial Magic, which was released last week.

There might be spoilers ahead!

The series’ protagonist, Chess Putnam, is a Church witch, a debunker whose job is to debunk ghost sightings. Chess is very good at her job—it’s the only thing she’ll admit to being good at—but her job gets her into very sticky situations, both personally and professionally, and she makes bad choices.

Sacrificial Magic by Stacia KaneUnlike many urban fantasy protagonists, who have bad events thrust onto them, Chess deliberately does incredibly self-destructive things. In that way, she is a direct descendant of noir protagonists in the books penned by Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain, and more recently, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, and Ken Bruen.

But unlike all those other authors, Chess is female. More than that, at least so far, she has a sustainable romantic relationship with another person, whereas those various PIs and other shady characters engage in much more fleeting relationships.

And perhaps because she is female, she is much more self-aware of just how self-destructive she is:

Oh, fuck. If that was the case , she was fucking doomed. She had nothing but scars; she was a scar.

Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside MeSome psychology studies have discussed how when females are angry, they turn their anger in on themselves; males lash out, such as when the sheriff in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me says:

“You go into the office and take a book or two from the shelves. You read a few lines, like your life depended on reading ’em right. But you know your life doesn’t depend on anything that makes sense, and you wonder where in the hell you got the idea it did; and you begin to get sore.

When the sheriff gets sore, he kills people. Chess doesn’t do that (not unless they deserve it, at least). But she is as embittered as Thompson’s sheriff, saying,

“It was never spring in her head, in her soul. The contrast between what happened outside and what happened inside was almost a physical ache.”

Warren Oates’s Cockfighter MovieBut Chess and such protagonists as Frank Mansfield in Charles Willeford’s Cockfighter, one of the most brilliant examples of unreliable narration, are similar in that they are not to be trusted to tell their own story properly. Chess, because she’s so full of self-loathing and drugs, and those others for their own host of closet demons. And none of the protagonists trust that life will tell them the truth either:

Love was full of secrets. Love masked so many evils. Love controlled people, it lied to them, it made them believe things that weren’t true and it hid the truth from them. People said love was blind, but what they meant was that love blinded them. It made them more vulnerable than anything else could.

And it felt so fucking good.

Then there’s the more facile similarity in that most of these protagonists are solving mysteries, whether or not they plan to. They’re all usually smarter than the rest of the world, more cynical, more likely to doubt motives, conversely more likely to help out when an innocent (or perceived innocent—perhaps debunked later) is involved, and ultimately think they can only rely on themselves while knowing they themselves are unreliable.

As Charles Willeford put it, “Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor. ”

The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles WillefordRecommended reading:

Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Charles Willeford, Cockfighter

James M. Cain, Double Indemnity

Ken Bruen, The Guards

James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia

Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me

Walter Mosley, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned


Megan Frampton is the Community Manager, Romance, for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son. She loves noir fiction nearly as much as she loves romance.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I had never thought about the series that way, but I love that Chess is kind of turning things on their heads, being female and aware of her self-destructiveness.
Amanda Bonilla
2. Amanda Bonilla
Such a great post! This type of female protag is my favorite to read. I wish female characters were protrayed more often in this noir style. Male MCs have had the market on being "damaged" for far too long. I think we need more stories with jacked up female MCs so we can watch the men do the fixing for a change. ;)
Robin Bradford
3. RobinBradford
@Amanda Yes! I love that, of the two of them, Terrible is the one who is setting relationship rules and keeping her steady. Trying to keep her steady. He's the one who is having to dig deep into a well of patience *I* certainly wouldn't possess if I were in his shoes. Usually, it is the chick who has to suffer (although not always silently) while their guy works their shit out. And, I have to say, I love it when he completely LOSES patience with her too. I just love this series, all there is to it.
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