In 2013, American novelist Meg Wolitzer commented that ‘One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around – what I call slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.’ I know exactly what she means (although there ought to be novels to suit every mood and surely we all need our ‘comfort reads’ at times?) but, thinking about all of my favourite books, I realise that for every Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet or Flora Poste there are at least a half-a-dozen female characters who wouldn’t be anybody’s best friend (assuming, that is, that they knew as much about them as the reader does). In trying to compile this ‘top ten’ list, I found that I was spoiled for choice – Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, Bertha Dorset from The House of Mirth, Cordelia from Cat’s Eye and Edith Stoner from Stoner are just a handful of those who didn’t quite make the cut, and there were plenty of others.
All of the women on this list are physically beautiful. Their faces, however, are not the indexes of their souls… And – surprisingly, perhaps, given the time at which the various novels were written – not all of them come to bad ends.
=10. Faye Greener from The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, 1939 and Netta Longden from Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, 1941
A pneumatic 17-year-old blonde, Faye, a would-be Hollywood starlet with no real acting ability, is manipulative and sadistic. All artifice, with little or no empathy, she is cut from the same cloth as the beautiful but callous aspiring actress Netta in Hamilton’s frowsty masterpiece of British Noir.
- Brenda Last from A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, 1934
Regularly cited as one of the worst mothers in literature, adulterous Brenda, when told of the death of ‘John’, first believes that the deceased is her lover, then expresses relief on discovering that it is, in fact, her young son. Shock can, of course, make people behave in strange ways, but this would seem to be taking things a bit too far…
- Pamela Flitton in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (12 volumes, 1951-1975)
A sadistic beauty with a long list of conquests and a positive zeal for humiliating people, cold-hearted Pamela takes pleasure in first undermining, then destroying, any man with whom she is involved.
- Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Selfish, shallow, snobbish and cushioned by her wealth, Daisy, who is presented as ethereally gorgeous and routinely linked by the author with the colour white (dress, flowers, car, etc) for its associations with purity and innocence is, in fact, a one-woman moral vacuum, who kills her (equally horrible) husband’s mistress in a hit-and-run.
- Helen Grayle/Velma Valento from Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, 1940
Chandler had a habit of writing unpleasant female characters (Carmen Sternwood, Orfamay Quest, etc), and in most (if not all) of his novels, the killer turns out to be a woman. Helen Grayle, however, the ‘blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,’ seems to me the worst of the lot. Calculating and unscrupulous, she has no hesitation in killing to protect her interests.
- Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847
An impoverished orphan who becomes a ruthless social-climber, Becky exploits everyone within range in order to claw her way to an opulent lifestyle. She’s a rotten mother, and Thackeray hints at murder, too – that of Jos Sedley, brother of her naive friend Amelia, who mysteriously dies after Becky has gained possession of his money.
- The Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782
Like Pamela Flitton, the scheming Marquise enjoys mortifying and degrading others, but the targets for her malice are female. She gets revenge on an ex-lover by ruining his virginal fiancée with the help of the equally unscrupulous Vicomte de Valmont, who she aids in his seduction (and destruction) of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel.
- Phyllis Nirdlinger from Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, 1943
Femme fatale Phyllis seduces Walter Huff and gets him to assist her in killing her husband for the insurance money, in a plot that is thought to be based on the case of Ruth Brown Snyder, who, in 1925, persuaded her lover to help kill her husband, having first persuaded him to insure his life.
- Rebecca de Winter from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, 1938
Although dead, the eponymous Rebecca, with the aid of her living familiar, Mrs Danvers, dominates this novel. This peerless hostess and apparently devoted wife was actually a compulsive liar and an adulteress who flaunted her affairs in front of her husband, then goaded him into killing her when she discovered that she was dying of cancer.
- Cathy Ames from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, 1952
Delicately beautiful Cathy drives one of her teachers to suicide; burns down her family home, killing her parents and shoots and wounds her husband when he tries to stop her deserting her twin baby sons. She then kills the madame of a whorehouse in order to take it over – then she gives the girls drugs, caters for the most depraved tastes, and blackmails the clients afterwards. Described by her creator as a ‘psychic monster’ with a ‘malformed soul’, she is as thoroughly evil as a character with no supernatural powers can be.
Laura Wilson is the author of twelve acclaimed and award-winning psychological crime novels, the latest of which is The Wrong Girl (Quercus). She is the Guardian’s crime fiction reviewer, and she teaches on the Crime/Thriller Writing MA course at City University, London.