The femme fatale of classic detective fiction and noir films rarely offers a kind portrayal of women. Mysterious and alluring, she commits all sorts of devious and despicable acts for her own gain, and the narrative invariably punishes her in the end. As misogynistic as this archetype is, the concept of a woman who seeks independence and agency through lethal means is certainly an intriguing one. It is easy to understand why John Copenhaver chose to reimagine the femme fatale in his coming-of-age mystery novel The Savage Kind (384 pages; Pegasus Crime). This dark, captivating novel follows two teenage girls who grow close while solving a murder mystery and, in the process, discover that they are each more capable of cruelty than they realized. Set in 1940s Washington, The Savage Kind is appreciative of the influential crime novels and films of the era while condemning the strict misogyny that limited women’s lives in this time.
Philippa and Judy are two seventeen-year-old girls who don’t get along with their peers yet feel strangely drawn to each other. The two girls start to worry for a beloved teacher’s safety after she has an altercation with a student and abruptly resigns and moves away. When that same student is found murdered in the river, the girls are determined to find the connection between the two events. Through daring and deliberate (and often illegal) means, Philippa and Judy investigate the mystery and uncover layer upon layer of conspiracy and secrets, some which hit far closer to home than they ever expected. They also start to discover more about themselves, about their attraction to each other—and also their shared desire for violence and vengeance.
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Copenhaver does a magnificent job of capturing the ever-shifting nature of teenage girls. Intelligent, bold, and passionate, Philippa and Judy are bursting with the possibilities of who they may become. Both are keenly aware of their liminal state and feel a desperation to determine who they are and who they are going to be, which manifests in their reckless attempts at investigation and retribution. Like all teenagers, they are self-centered and petty, yet they are keener and wiser than the adults in their lives give them credit for. The novel’s title comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem which ends up playing a key role in the story, and the book deftly combines this poem’s theme of constant transformation with the novel’s focus on adolescent girlhood.
The Savage Kind is told through the diary entries of Philippa and Judy, as compiled and tweaked fifteen years later by one of the girls—though exactly which girl remains hidden until nearly the end of the novel. “If I tell you the truth about Judy and Philippa, I’m going to lie,” this archivist states up front. Still, her preface does little to prepare us for the sheer amount of deception to come. The government lies to the public, the adults lie to the children, the girls lie to each other, and the archivist lies to us. As the story takes place during the Red Scare, the environment of paranoia and secrecy feels apt.
The diary-entry format also creates a sense of nostalgia, heightened by the compiler’s brief introductions to each chapter. Though her tone is foreboding at times, it is also decidedly affectionate toward Philippa and Judy, and she seems to remember those years fondly. Similarly, the novel itself is nostalgic while also firmly critical of the misogyny and racism of its era. In this way, The Savage Kind accomplishes a self-aware nostalgia, reveling in the good memories while shining a light on the more sinister aspects of the past. The result is a suspenseful and thrilling novel unapologetic in its revitalization of classic elements of crime fiction and its appreciation for complicated, morally gray women seeking agency over their lives, using whatever means possible to do so.