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08/28/2013 12:10 pm ET

Female Crime Writers Featured Exclusively In 'Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives'

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The following is an excerpt from the introduction ofTroubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense [Penguin, $16.00], an anthology of 14 crime stories, all written by women in the 40s through 70s. Editor Sarah Weinmen selected tales from Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Harrington, and other writers who laid the groundwork for such modern bestsellers as Gillian Flynn and Tana French. Sarah Weinman is a news editor for Publishers Marketplace and Crime Wave columnist for the National Post Books section.

As we speak, the current crop of crime writers who excite and inspire me the most are women. These authors are very much rooted in the present, exposing our most potent fears and showing the most insidious effects of human behavior in ways that are fresh, smart, and forward-looking, but—consciously or otherwise—draw on the rich tradition crime writing has to offer. Their books color outside the lines, blur between categories, and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society. Especially those impulses that begin in the home.

With each passing year I’ve grown more picky and discerning about my crime fiction reading. The books I’m drawn to are most often written by women, about women. Their authors speak to me as a reader, as a feminist, and as one who cares about the greater good.

Consider Gillian Flynn’s "Gone Girl," 2012’s most popular and critically acclaimed suspense novel, with more than two million copies sold as of this writing. It’s a masterful look at a marriage that seems like pure bliss to outsiders, but to the husband and wife in question, bears greater resemblance to the 1989 movie "The War of the Roses," the ultimate poisonous battle of the sexes.

Flynn is just one of the many standouts at the vanguard of psychological suspense that addresses matters of great relevance to women. Edgar Award–winning author Megan Abbott moves smoothly from feminine-subversive midcentury noir in novels like "Die a Little or Bury Me Deep" to taut, almost hallucinatory examinations of teenage girls making sense of their hearts, bodies, and minds, as in "The End of Everything or Dare Me." In her most recent suspense novel "And When She Was Good," Laura Lippman illuminates the world of the suburban madam with expert empathy, as she did with a kidnap victim’s battle of wits with her former tormentor in "I’d Know You Anywhere." And Attica Locke, in "The Cutting Season," restarts a disquieting but necessary conversation on America’s slavery past through the lens of a plantation-turned-tourist attraction overseen by a single mother.

The burgeoning renaissance has an international flavor, too, with successful authors like Tana French of Dublin, Sophie Hannah of London, Louise Penny of Canada, and the duo of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis of Denmark. They may nominally be writing police procedurals, but what they really do, book after book, is take a scalpel to contemporary society and slice away until its dark essence reveals itself: the ways in which women continue to be victimized, their misfortunes down- played by men (and women) who don’t believe them, and how they eventually overcome.

In marveling at these women, I began to wonder about who came before them. They certainly could not have existed without the efforts of the generation immediately preceding them, who collectively furthered the cause of women in the genre and coalesced into the group Sisters in Crime, founded in 1986. At that point four women—Liza Cody, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky—were making critical and commercial in- roads into the identifiably male private detective story, transmuting the darkness, nobility, humor, and detection savvy of the form from the vantage point of their investigating heroines Anna Lee, Kinsey Millhone, Sharon McCone, and V. I. Warshawski.

Over the next two and a half decades, where there was a market, women were there to fill it, master it, and put their distinct stamp on it. The police procedural, long a male-dominated category, gave birth to the splinter group of the forensic thriller, pioneered by Thomas Harris but made mainstream by Patricia Cornwell and, later, Kathy Reichs, Val McDermid, and Karin Slaughter. And when a crime story demanded a vivid sense of place in settings stretching from upstate New York to Appalachia to the West and the South, women like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, Vicki Lane, and Margaret Coel rose up to meet those goals and gain devoted readerships for their region-flavored fare.

When I reached back further in time I discovered, much to my surprise, an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view. Their work spanned a period of three decades, from the early 1940s through the mid-1970s. At the time, their work, about the concerns of women, didn’t easily fit within the genre’s two marquee categories, which had come of age during the Great Depression and flourished thereafter: the male-dominated hard-boiled story made famous by the likes of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett; and the tonally lighter and less violent cozy, which grew out of the success of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, known colloquially as the “Queens of Crime.”

The crime genre, concerned as it is with the righting of wrongs and playing by rules, is less comfortable with blurred boundaries. It’s especially uneasy about stories that feature ordinary people, particularly women, trying to make sense of a disordered world with small stakes, where the most important worry is whether a person takes good care of her children, stands up to a recalcitrant spouse, or contends with how best to fit—or subvert—social mores. The bombast of global catastrophe, the knight-errant detective’s overweening nobility, or the gaping maw of total self-annihilation has no place in these stories. A subtle approach to the human condition with a more domestically oriented view attracts far less notice than books with grand ambitions writ large, but they are no less deserving of appreciation and understanding.
With cultural conversations increasingly focused on women’s issues, from the “war on women” waged during the 2012 American election cycle, hand-wringing over whether women can “have it all,” and books saluting or decrying the end of men, this misplaced generation of female crime writers deserves, more than ever, to take their place at the literary table. Understanding the time and place in which these women created some of the best and most influential works of crime fiction ever written will allow their branch of the genre’s family tree—what we think of as domestic suspense—to be properly recognized.

War is the ultimate chaotic event; World War II in particular. While the men fought their enemies overseas, the women had no choice but to transcend their day-to-day lives as homemakers and caregivers and try something else. They worked in munitions factories, nursed wounded soldiers back to health, and wrote and spoke about what they saw and heard.
Seismic changes were also taking place in genre fiction, and help to explain the rise of the domestic suspense story during and after the World War II. Before the war, most working writers made their money producing stories by the word for the pulps or the slicks. The pulps, named for the cheap paper quality, included magazines like Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Argosy. And with very rare exceptions, they almost always published men. The slicks (for higher quality paper) paid writers better, with outlets like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and The American publishing more mainstream stories for a middlebrow audience. Women fared better in these markets, but the stories published there were less overtly psychological or suspenseful in nature.

That left a void, filled when the most popular mystery writing team of the day—cousins Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay, aka Ellery Queen—launched their eponymous magazine in 1941. In its early years, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine published works designated as detective stories, featuring the greats like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie during their peak. But they also made room for crime stories, those that didn’t rely on the detective as a plot device, and this is where a number of women found a viable market to explore more domestic-minded subjects. EQMM published tales of wives struggling with poisonous marriages, daughters seeking to escape parental high expectations, elderly women neglected and at the behest of others, and teachers, nurses, and social workers who felt shackled by their work.

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When World War II ended and the men came home, the social order of the day was restored, with men returning to their absent lives and jobs as family providers. Or at least that’s what was supposed to happen. Once disrupted, like Humpty Dumpty’s fragments, it’s impossible to put a social order back together again. The 1950s certainly tried, wanting desperately to stick with the prewar status quo in which men provided and women stayed at home. That decade gloried in conspicuous consumption, emphasizing the value of owning cars, kitchen appliances, and large suburban houses. But a growing number of women found themselves questioning their lives, which centered around their husbands, children, and home. Many found comfort in what they could buy, watch on television, or read in magazines. Others found a welcome outlet in the written word, channeling their frustrations of unattainable domestic perfection into suspense stories read by an audience of other women who under- stood these anxieties all too well.

The mystery magazine business was not immune to disruption, either. The pulps started dying off, but EQMM flourished, as did new magazines like Manhunt, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and The Saint Mystery Magazine. What these women wrote broadened the general short story market, paving the way for writers to start their careers in front of a small but influential and devoted readership, and were particularly good at widening the range of mystery short stories published—especially those by women. Their work, in short form or in novels, could be tough or tender, reflecting contemporary anxiety or finding a way to subvert it. And they were justly rewarded by their peers.

With the genre’s escalating postwar popularity—the “Christie for Christmas” marketing slogan for the annual Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple bestseller by Agatha Christie came about in the mid-1940s—some critics felt the need to knock down crime fiction. Edmund Wilson’s 1944 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” which took Sayers, Christie, Chandler, and others to task for not measuring up to appropriate literary greatness, remains the most infamous of the genre-snob bunch, and the standard from which most recent literary put-downs deviate from. But essays by Wilson and his ilk had a more positive by-product: the formation of the Mystery Writers of America in 1945. Its slogan: “crime does not pay enough.” Its mission: to better the status, career prospects, and payments for mystery writers. Its crown jewel: the annual Edgar Awards banquet, honoring the best in mystery year after year.

The Edgars proved to be very kind toward works of domestic suspense fiction, and many of the selections in this anthology won or were nominated for the Edgar, or their authors won or were nominated for novels or other stories. The very first winner of the Best Novel Award, in 1952, was female, Australian writer Charlotte Jay. Beat Not the Bones concerned itself with a young woman determined to uncover the truth about her anthropologist husband’s death, which was ruled to be suicide but was, she believed, murder. The novel earned praise for its superior suspense and depiction of its exotic New Guinea setting.

Critics like the writer and editor Anthony Boucher, who wrote the “Criminals at Large” column between 1951 and his death in 1968, were also impressed by domestic suspense tales. Boucher never hesitated to put novels by the likes of Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Celia Fremlin—all included in this anthology—on his best-of-the-year lists, praising their skillful plots, exemplary characterization, and incisive portraits of human behavior. But critical acclaim alone doesn’t sustain writing careers. These women had a steady readership willing to part with their money whenever a new title arrived. Their stories chiefly concerned women, but their audience encompassed both genders. They were published almost exclusively in hardcover format—their work deemed to be more sophisticated than the paperback houses that replaced the pulp magazines en masse and quickly propagated, with great success, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then the social order changed once more, inch by incremental inch, in the mid-1960s. Women dissatisfied and frustrated by the expectations of domesticity found kinship in the identification of a feminine mystique, which in turn opened the door to a movement looking for equal rights. Those who helped forge that movement took extreme tacks at first, risking accusations of being fringe, crazy, or worse. But without them, more moderate concerns like making room for working women, earning comparable pay to men, and dialing down the sexism could never have been addressed.

As the feminist movement grew in prominence, and female writers made bold strides into what was formerly thought of as “male” territory, a funny thing happened in the crime genre: readers turned away from the domestic suspense story, and the pioneering writers seemed to fall off the map. Their work struggled to remain in print, their champions fewer than the men of the paperback pulps. Domestic suspense writers did not have their versions of Barry Gifford, whose Black Lizard paperback reprint project throughout the 1980s helped restore the reputations of a great many male writers from that era, or Geoffrey O’Brien, who helped define their importance in the first place in Hardboiled America (1981) while playing down, or in many instances leaving out entirely, their female counterparts.

Writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford may have been published initially with the lackadaisical indifference given to lesser peers, but their reputations have since been restored and polished to high gloss, with Thompson and Goodis novels now part of the Library of America (overseen by O’Brien). Writers like Fremlin, Hughes, and Millar, heralded while they lived, did not have the same institutional backing as their male peers. Worse off were those women writers who wrote domestic suspense short fiction exclusively.

Once a pendulum swings one way, it’s only natural it begins to swing back in the other direction. And now the balance that’s worked against the proper recognition of domestic suspense can be recalibrated.

Who, then, are these women, the fourteen authors represented in this collection? Most of them were mothers and wives, writing fiction in brief moments of respite from raising children and keeping the house in order. Some never married at all or married late in life, spending their wartime youth (First or Second, de- pending on the woman) working in army factories, passing out rudimentary birth control, or helping out with the Nazi resistance. A fair number went to college; a couple earned graduate degrees. Some traveled the world, alone or with their husbands. Some stuck close to their hometowns or original states of birth, telling stories that reflect their deep regional roots. Others settled in California, siphoning off money from the Hollywood spigot. All of them understood uniquely, absolutely, and bravely what it was like to be a woman, to be trapped in situations, and to summon up the fortitude to overcome them, expressed in novels and stories.

These stories may be subtle, even quiet, but don’t let that fool you. The women who ruled over the domestic suspense genre during the mid-twentieth century turn our most deep-seated worries into narrative gold, delving into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. Their stories of domestic suspense frighten precisely because in depicting ordinary, everyday life—especially in the context of larger anxieties about rapid societal change—the nerves they hit are really fault lines that, despite tremendous progress, show no signs of going away anytime soon.

From Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Sarah Weinman, 2013

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