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 characters.
Before Women Crime Writers, you edited an anthology of stories, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. How did your interest in these overlooked mystery writers begin?
In 2011, I contributed an essay to Tin House, “The Dark Side of Dinner Dishes, Laundry, and Child Care,” talking about women writers I felt had fallen off the map. I wrote about Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Celia Fremlin’s Hours Before Dawn, and Marie Belloc Lowndes, who I think of as one of the founding mothers of domestic suspense. Lowndes’s The Lodger, which was published in 1914, is about this destitute, middle-aged couple who didn’t have children and who take in a boarder. In the background there’s a serial murderer, a Jack the Ripper–style guy running amok, and the tension of the book is as much about killer as the crippling debt and destitution that this couple is fighting against and not necessarily winning.
But even then, in the essay, I was really interested in this whole group of women who were writing stories that didn’t quite fit into the British mystery tradition of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and who didn’t fit into detective fiction of the American style of Hammett or Chandler, either, or the noir of James M. Cain, Paul Cain, and Horace McCoy. There seemed to be this third path. That essay was the germ for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.
Did readers or critics recognize these authors as experimental or groundbreaking in their day?
Most reviews of the time regarded the books as very good, but not necessarily innovative.
How did you decide on which works would be anthologized in Women Crime Writers?
Some were obvious from the get-go, like Vera Caspary’s Laura, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall. Charlotte Armstrong we knew had to be in there. We talked about a few of her books, like A Dram of Poison, since it had won the Edgar, but Mischief had a better anchoring with what was going on in society at the time. To the best of my knowledge, it is also the first of the “psychotic babysitter” books. The Highsmith was a late addition. The Blunderer is an important book in the Highsmith oeuvre because it’s the first one she wrote after The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, so she’s trying to get back into mystery field, but she’s developing ideas that would later come into play with the Ripley books, so it’s a transitional book. Her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley had previously been included in the Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, so The Blunderer provided good continuity.
One book I was really hoping would make the cut for The 1950s was A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. She wrote domestic suspense, mainstream fiction, historical fiction, detective books, all sorts, but I really liked A Gentle Murderer because it had a dose of horror and religion—she was a Catholic.
Another author I was stumping for was Nedra Tyre. Her story “A Nice Place to Stay” was in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. Tyre was a social worker from the South, so she really knew what made people tick. She has a novel from the fifties called Death of an Intruder, which I think of as a passive aggressive battle of the wits between two spinsters. The opening is just two women sitting at a table, telling each other to pass the salt, one passes the salt and the other is like, Maybe this is the day when I finally kill her. She was so cold! But she ultimately didn’t fit in because, as much as I adore the novel, she was a stronger short-story writer. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine asked me to write an introduction to another Tyre short story, “Killed By Kindness.” I adore the story. It’s kind of a forerunner to Gone Girl, though I’m not sure Gillian Flynn even knew about it.
Crime fiction that reflected society, but also that’s also startlingly fresh for today. We still have so many of the same fears about marriage, motherhood, even being alone in the house, being an outsider, not fitting in, and these books represent that incredibly well. These authors tapped that vein. Crime fiction as literature in the best possible way.
What’s refreshing to me is how these books lack the typical genre trappings present in so many of their male counterparts—the femme fatale, for instance.
The femme fatale is the other. Those male writers weren’t evaluating a woman as a woman. They were evaluating woman as an object. These women crime writers weren’t going to do that, because they had to live in female skins. Did Hammett understand women? Did Chandler? My joke about The Maltese Falcon is that the best character is Effie Perine.
She was Sam Spade’s secretary—another stereotypical female role in crime fiction of the time.
Hammett had no idea what he had with her and probably didn’t care. I just felt she held the key to everything. Assistants often know all and yet they are overlooked and neglected and disrespected. But Hammett knew enough, I suppose, to have Effie in that critical end-scene chastising Spade.
One of the threads of the anthologies is how, beneath a conventional exterior, the women are decidedly unconventional. Was this quality appreciated in their day, or is it only now that we appreciate how bold and stereotype-breaking they are?
The word I would see a lot in reviews of the time was clever, and I think those qualities were appreciated, in part. But there also wasn’t, say, a proper “literary” figure stumping for them. Genre was well-regarded in circles, but you didn’t get five-thousand-word treatises.
These books were written between first- and second-wave feminism, and they all touch on, in some form, gender roles at the time. Do you consider them political books, to some extent?
The Blank Wall certainly has overtones, but I’m not sure how overt Holding meant to be. I think she was just a tellingly good social observer. Laura was overtly political for sure. Caspary was trying to make a point about women and independence and how men viewed them, with derision or condescension or on a pedestal, when the real person was ignored.
Do you think there is an element of literary criticism within the books? Laura’s multi-perspective structure seems to highlight how the male characters misunderstand her and see her through their own desire.
Vera Caspary came out and said she didn’t read mystery short stories.
And there’s Hitchens’s description of one of the thugs in Fools’ Gold—“Marvitch lived on rare steaks and bourbon whiskey and eighteen-year-old brunettes.” That seems like she’s skewering the typical hard-boiled male image.
Yes, and also it wouldn’t surprise me if In a Lonely Place was tweaking Chandler. How could it not? It’s postwar Los Angeles, and we have a guy who we quickly learn is a psychopathic serial killer, but he could be viewed as a Philip Marlowe–type guy, which is why casting Humphrey Bogart in the movie becomes meta-commentary. But remember that Hughes was also a critic and often admired many male crime writers.
Did the Black Dahlia murder influence In a Lonely Place?
Everything coalesced in 1947. You had the Black Dahlia murder and In a Lonely Place, The Blank Wall, and Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury were published—even though I, the Jury didn’t become a success until 1948 with the paperback edition. All those writers were reckoning with postwar stuff in different ways. I think of an alternate universe where In a Lonely Place became wildly popular and I, the Jury did not, but it makes perfect sense that Spillane became the more popular one. What does Mike Hammer do? He shoots people, chases women, he “cares” but really doesn’t. He’s a bully, and after the war male readers needed affirmation of their masculinity, and here is a book that not only affirms it but is the gorilla of masculinity. Whereas In a Lonely Place, on the other hand, is the antithesis of that. It skewers masculinity and says to the soldiers who came back, Here’s one of you.
And then there’s the comment in Beast in View about pulp magazines—“My youngest kid reads them all the time. It drives me crazy trying to stop her. Stuff like that gives kids the wrong idea about the world—they get to thinking all secretaries get bussed by the boss and all Sunday school teachers are assaulted in choir lofts. Which isn’t true.”
All Millar had to do was go in the room next door and see what Kenneth Millar [Ross Macdonald] was working on!
But she had started her career before he did, and she was more successful first. He didn’t really become the “Ross Macdonald” that we understand him to be for another two, three years after Beast in View when he published The Doomsters and The Galton Case.
Many women crime writers of this era were published under male pseudonyms. We’ve already mentioned Craig Rice, Vin Packer, and Leigh Brackett. Are there others whose reputations are still obscured by their ambiguous pen names?
Yes, and they weren’t always American, either. There were British women writers, like Dail Ambler. The Lady Holds A Gun: The Story of Dail Ambler by Steve Holland was recently reissued, which goes through how prolific she really was. There was also Mary Violet Heberden, who published as M. V. Heberden. I’d like to write about her, because before she started writing mysteries—her detective was Desmond Shannon—she also wrote spy novels as Charles L. Leonard. Doubleday Crime Club published everything. She was writing sometimes two to three books a year. Before that, she was an actress. Also there’s Holly Roth, who published in the fifties and sixties, mainly espionage fiction under the names K. G. Ballard and P. J. Merrill. She left the United States with her younger husband and traveled the world by yacht, and then she fell off her yacht in 1964 and they never found her body. It’s a real mystery!
All of the works anthologized were adapted for film or television. The Hollywood films, particularly, seem to have eclipsed their source material in reputation.
I think that’s inevitable because more people see movies than read books. That was true in the forties and it’s true now. And there were also such significant changes with some adaptations. The film version of In a Lonely Place is a complementary work of art, but they’re very different. Hughes didn’t like many of the adaptations of her work. Same thing with Laura. Vera Caspary wrote an essay called “My ‘Laura’ and Otto’s” where she talks about the arguments she had with Preminger. She felt that not only did he misunderstand the character but that he couldn’t help but be misogynist. Then she watched the movie and said, It was a great movie, so what do I know? And with Fools’ Gold, Jean-Luc Godard is going to be Godard regardless of his source material. Hitchens hated the movie. Her son told me they went to see it at the Thalia and Hitchens wanted to walk out, that’s how much she loathed it.
How does the success these authors found compare to the names we now associate with crime fiction from that era? Chandler, Cain, Jim Thompson, David Goodis …
The women writers were often equal or even more successful, but in a different way, if they were in hardcover first. But their paperbacks sold rather well—especially if the covers were pulp-lurid.
Their male contemporaries, like Goodis and Thompson, have been reappraised and are now more popular than they were in their lifetimes. Why were these women writers left out of that wave of interest in older crime fiction?
Some of it had to do with who was the big cheerleader, putting work into context at the right time. In the eighties that was Barry Gifford with his Black Lizard imprint and Geoffrey O’Brien with Hardboiled America, and then later on nobody came along to be interested in these women writers. Black Lizard was reprinting according to Gifford’s taste and to what was then out of print—authors such as Jim Thompson, Paul Cain, and David Goodis. Many of these women writers were actually still in print during the eighties. You had Dell paperbacks of Dorothy B. Hughes, you had IPL editions of Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, Academy Chicago had the Elisabeth Sanxay Holding books, and The Horizontal Man had an Avon paperback in the 1970s. Gifford just wasn’t interested in those types of books. He didn’t publish many women, just Sin Soracco’s Low Bite, Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, Victoria Nichols and Susan Thompson’s reference book, Silk Stalkings: When Women Write of Murder—which I have, and which was very helpful—and Helen Nielsen’s Detour and Sing Me a Murder.
A lot of the major players in the 1960s were the same as the 1940s and 1950s—Hitchen’s Sleep with Slander. Armstong’s Lemon in the Basket, which is a fusion of the political assassination thriller and a family drama. And Hughes’s The Expendable Man. For new voices, perhaps Amanda Cross, Mildred B. Davis, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, too.
Marcia Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes was published in 1977.
Yes, but before Edwin you have Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark, which I view as the dawn of modern suspense. When I interviewed Clark earlier his year, she mentioned Armstong and Millar as influences, but mostly Daphne du Maurier and the Gothics, and also Gone with the Wind and Jane Erye. She was also writing in the tradition of Mary Roberts Rinehart, fusing her “Had-I-but-known” plot with a more ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Rinehart funded Farrar & Rinehart, which later became Farrar, Straus and Giroux. David Foster Wallace taught Mary Higgins Clark. Over and over again, he would tell his students to read Where Are the Children? You can learn a lot by reading Mary Higgins Clark.
Cullen Gallagher is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and Not Coming to a Theater Near You, among others.