The women’s touch — hardboiled and cold-blooded
Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald are often considered the ne plus ultra of 20th century crime writers. But assuming the most noteworthy crime fiction begins and ends down those writers’ mean streets ignores the labor of an equally talented group of women whose work has been balkanized between hard-boiled and cozies into a sub-genre loosely called suspense.
Yet for many readers, the psychological complexity in the novels of Barbara Vine and Megan Abbott or Emma Donoghue and Gillian Flynn are more relevant to their daily lives, extrapolating commonplace fears about safety of children or marital infidelity into compelling fiction.
Critic and editor Sarah Weinman calls this fiction “domestic suspense,” noting how its modern practitioners “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 at home.”
Weinman’s admiration for contemporary domestic-suspense writers led her to seek out their foremothers, 14 of whom are represented in “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.” The anthology spans work published from the 1940s through the 1970s and includes notable short fiction from such recognizable names as Patricia Highsmith, Vera Caspary, Shirley Jackson and Margaret Millar as well as a host of lesser but no less worthy contributors.
Highsmith, best known among crime readers for her focus on male protagonists in her 1950 debut novel, “Strangers on a Train,” and the Ripley novels, might seem an unusual choice for a domestic-suspense anthology. Yet 1945’s “The Heroine,” Highsmith’s first published work, oozes with the author’s trademark tension in weaving the story of a newly hired au pair whose dedication to her two young charges has an ominous and contemporary edge: “Lucille found herself wishing for some real catastrophe, something dangerous and terrible to befall Heloise, so that she might throw herself between her and the attacker, and prove her great courage and devotion.”
Another standout is 1943’s “Sugar and Spice” by Caspary, who wrote fiction, stage plays and screenplays. The story of two cousins who are lifelong rivals for familial and male affections, “Sugar and Spice” is effectively told through flashbacks in a vivid cinematic style that Caspary later perfected in screenplays, most notably “A Letter to Three Wives.” The story also features a strong and independent female character, not unlike Caspary’s iconic career woman in the 1943 novel “Laura” or the author herself.
While independent women are not absent in “Troubled Daughters,” the majority of the stories reflect the lives of women caught between societal expectations of the times and their deeper desires.
Helen Nielsen, a successful novelist and television writer for the midcentury “Perry Mason” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” is represented in 1959’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” The protagonist in this tense tale is Loren Banion, former secretary and now vice president in a company owned by her husband, John, who’s being taunted with phone calls from an old lover. But are the calls being placed out of jealousy or is it payback for Loren’s indiscretions with John when he was married to someone else?
Also in a quandary are women in Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Stranger in the Car” who conspire to preserve their genteel image in the eyes of the family patriarch while simultaneously preventing themselves from being implicated in a murder brought literally to the family’s doorstep. Admired by Raymond Chandler as “the top suspense writers of them all,” Holding’s work is being increasingly reprinted in paperback and e-book formats.
And while most of the stories are domestic, Holding and Dorothy Salisbury Davis are contributors whose male protagonists’ points of view enriches “Troubled Daughters.” Davis’ 1971 story, “Lost Generation,” concerning the deeply disturbing action of seemingly upstanding lawmen in a small town, is exceptional and one of the few stories in the collection with political overtones. Hailed by mystery author Sara Paretsky as “one of the most deeply insightful thinkers into the human condition I have ever known,” Davis is a past Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, a founder of Sisters in Crime and, at 97, is the only living writer in the anthology.
Trained as a forensic scientist, Weinman is a passionate and intrepid collector of stories for “Troubled Daughters.” She also does an admirable job in providing brief sketches of each contributor’s career and story, even if she bobbles the occasional plot point. And although Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home” and Millar’s “The People Across the Canyon” seem more sad than suspenseful, “Troubled Daughters” is otherwise brimming with still-relevant crime fiction by writers too-long ignored. Their elevation by Weinman for this groundbreaking anthology is not only a confirmation of the lasting power of domestic fiction to engage and entertain but to the legitimate place of these pioneering writers in the mystery canon.
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and edited several anthologies.
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction
Edited by Sarah Weinman
Penguin; 354 pages; $16 paper
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