Sassy Girl – Lauren Henderson, Sam Jones, and Tart Noir

By Evangeline Jennings

I was recently asked if the inspiration for #FEMNOIR was Tart Noir. No, I said, and went on to surprise the nice man at Murder by the Book with my deep and abiding affection for all things Sam Jones. As we talked, I realized or remembered that although there was no link of the type he was looking for, the leading ladies of Tart Noir – Sam and her creator Lauren Henderson – did play a significant role in  my development as a reader and writer.

Lauren. Not Sam?
Lauren. Not Sam?

I first met Sam in my early teens. We took a train together and I rattled through her first adventure, Dead White Female, and maybe half of the next before we lumbered into Euston. It helped that the books were small and slipped into the pockets of my Puffa – yes, I said the P-word – but regardless I was hooked. I continued to read on the tube and bus. There was something refreshingly different about Sam.

In Dead White Female, she tries to convince the police that a friend’s death wasn’t an accident and ends up solving the crime herself. Standard fare so far – but Sam is no Miss Marple. Or Tuppence Beresford. She’s a sculptor who says she is as sensitive as Conan the Barbarian on cocaine. A brunette who tells blonde jokes, looks like a sex doll, and does her drugs like I do my Cadbury’s Caramel Eggs.

When Sam returns in Too Many Blondes, she’s bought an ankle length leopard skin coat  and fine-tuned her attitude.

By any standards of decency, there were too many blondes in that gym. If one of them had died in less suspicious circumstances, I would have put it down to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Only the way this one happened to die was about as natural as the colour of her hair.

Strawberry Tattoo takes her to a group art show in New York where she is nearly garroted while chasing down another pair of killers.

Strawberry Tattoo
Strawberry Tattoo

“I can’t do this anymore,” Hawkins said.
“My cervix’ll be glad to hear that. It’s not what it was. I think it needs a rest cure.”

Sam Jones likes her hems and boots high and thinks sex is a contact sport, not a performance.  In The Black Rubber Dress, she plunges into the world of merchant bankers and fucks a champagne-fueled night away in Kensington Gardens. The morning taxi ride of shame was something special as well.

I held out as long as I could, but when the taxi swung into the street where Sebastian lived and bumped hard over a pothole, I yawned and came almost simultaneously. It was a personal first.

I think you get the idea. Sam Jones was a dirty, dirty girl and she’d punch your lights out if you dared call her feisty. She lived in an artsy underworld of indie nights and fetish clubs and stumbled, always reluctantly, into more than her fair share of murders. Willful, irrepressible, razor sharp, and far too damn cute for her own good, she stood in stark contrast to the typical mystery-crime-thriller woman of the time. Along with Lindsay Gordon, Pam Nielsen, and Emma Victor, Sam showed me things didn’t have to be that way.

And so, in the immortal words of Disney, I collected them all. Seven novels in total.

At the time I didn’t know it was a genre.

Tart Noir Anthology
Tart Noir Anthology

Henderson wanted to use the label Slut Noir, and gives the “credit” for toning it down to her friend and co-conspirator Sparkle Hayter, author of the more light-hearted Robyn Hudson books – yeah, I bought them too. And in the introduction to the 2002 Tart Noir anthology, Henderson set out a blueprint for the genre.

Tart Noir women are neo-feminists – half Philip Marlowe, half femme fatale – who make their own rules; women who think it’s entirely possible to save the world wearing a pretty dress and stiletto heels. Our heroes are Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel. Our morals are questionable. And our attitude always needs adjustment.

That’s probably a trope now – like girls with blue hair or green eyes – but at the time, to readers like me, it was a revelation.

If I have this right, Sam Jones was killed off by Lauren Henderson’s publisher and will not be coming back unless somebody decides to make a TV show, or maybe a movie. Since her Sam days, Henderson has moved on to what I’m going to call Chick Lit because I don’t know any better and to a Young Adult Mystery series featuring a reluctant schoolgirl detective called Scarlett Wakefield. I haven’t read them yet – I only discovered them recently – but I do hope there is something of Sam in Scarlett. And that she stays away from parks after dark and boys called Sebastian.

And now for a song from the Sam Jones collection.

The Sam Jones books by Lauren Henderson

  • Dead White Female (1996)
  • Too Many Blondes (1996)
  • The Black Rubber Dress (1998)
  • The Strawberry Tattoo (1999)
  • Freeze My Margarita (2000) – Sam goes to the theatre.
  • Chained! (2001) – Sam wakes up in handcuffs in a cellar. It must have been a kicking night out.
  • Pretty Boy (2001) – Sam’s traditional cosy Christmas mystery.

The usual linkage

And one more song.

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