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Posts Tagged ‘mysteries’

Women in Crime: An Interview with Sarah Weinman

October 19, 2015 | by

From the first-edition cover of Mischief.

Sarah Weinman’s two-volume Women Crime Writers challenges and redefines our notions of American crime fiction. Broken into two decades, the 1940s and the 1950s, her collection comprises eight novels—with Vera Caspary’s Laura, Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall in the first volume, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, and Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold in the second. Together, these books reveal an unjustly forgotten feminist tradition by writers who were, in their day, respected as the best in their field.

Diverging from the pulp action tradition embodied by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler—and from the cozier school of British whodunits by Agatha Christie—these authors pioneered a new trend in mystery fiction: psychological suspense. The stereotypical mysteries of the day featured hard-boiled masculine heroes battling femme fatales. These works, by contrast, presented a variety of innovative plots and perceptive commentary on the gender and class issues of their time. The women in these novels—the titular, savvy careerist in Laura; the psychotic babysitter in Mischief; the struggling mother who covers up the murder of a blackmailer in The Blank Wall—consistently defy what were then conventional notions of womanhood. As the mother in The Blank Wall acknowledges, “[Her husband and children] would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage, but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be”; ultimately, hers is a quest not only to protect the family name but also to exercise personal agency.

Sometimes the hero (In a Lonely Place), the villain (The Blunderer and Beast in View), or a more ambiguous but still integral role (The Horizontal Man and Fools’ Gold), they’re all refreshingly realistic, relatable, and archetype-breaking female charactersRead More »

Nancy Drew in Starlight

October 14, 2015 | by

Who is Nancy Drew, really? The instability of the girl detective.


An illustration from The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

The writer Bobbie Ann Mason once described the Nancy Drew novels as sonnets, or “endless variations on an inflexible form.” The same could be said of Nancy herself: though outfitted with a few baseline characteristics—her freedom, her wile, her supreme politesse—she’s perpetually shape-shifting throughout the series. Alternately sixteen and eighteen, Nancy Drew is a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code. Even her hair color is famously inconstant—from book to book, it flickers from blonde to strawberry blonde to her most distinctive shade, Titian, so named for the rosy apricot color used in many of the sixteenth-century Italian’s paintings.

And yet, there are some things Nancy Drew simply does not do. In her decades-long original run of more than fifty books, she never once goes to the movies or mentions an actor by name. Her only brush with Hollywood comes in 1931’s The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where she meets the diabolical Gay Moreau, a washed-up actress who’s also a Nancy Drew impersonator, committing petty crimes to defame the detective. Nancy approaches the case with some amusement at her resemblance to a “blonde actress,” but things take a turn for the weird when the starlet kidnaps Nancy, binds and gags her, and, to Nancy’s horror, begins to actRead More »

A Public Appeal: Help Me Remember This Book

February 19, 2014 | by

nancy runs the bookmobile

Assuredly not the book in question.

I throw myself on your mercy, readers.

For some years now, I have been searching fruitlessly for a long-lost book, and I’m hoping someone out there can help me remember the title. The problem is, I have very little to go on: I know it is a paperback career romance from the late fifties or early sixties. I believe it follows the career of an event planner, or maybe an interior decorator. But it is not—I repeat, not—1964’s Weddings by Gwen, in which wedding planner Gwen Wright gets in over her head with a rich family, a dud boyfriend named Steve, and a cockamamie blackmail plot; nor is it One Perfect Rose, from the same year, in which Prill Sage redecorates a Victorian mansion. (Out of scholarly obligation, I reread both, just to make sure.)

Part of the difficulty is that there is a certain, well, formula to the bulk of these career-romance titles. The Julian Messner series—Nancy Runs the Bookmobile; Lady Lawyer; Lee Devins: Copywriter—are sober, conscientious, and informative. Young woman moves to the city, learns about career in mind-numbing detail, has a dull beau, finds satisfaction in work. In the case of the more entertaining but less educational Valentine and Avalon titles—think Dreams to Shatter (pottery) or A Measure of Love (department-store modeling)—the careers are mere backdrops to lurid and implausible romances, skeletons in closets, and Nancy Drew–style investigations. Read More »