You can make a case that the two biggest developments in American crime fiction since World War II have been the explosion of graphic violence and the rise of women novelists to equal standing with men in terms of both sales and critical acclaim.
The former — the fascination with gore and sadism that extends from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer to Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter and beyond — can be attributed simply to a widespread coarsening in our culture or, some might say, to an increasing postwar willingness to accept the harsh realities of this world as it is.
The growing success of women crime writers is harder to chart. Starting in England in the 1920s, Agatha Christie achieved tremendous worldwide success, but she inspired no American counterpart and her genteel mysteries were overshadowed here by the rise of hard-boiled detective fiction. There have always been isolated successes: Patricia Highsmith, for one, produced brilliant crime novels in the 1950s, but both her work and her lifestyle were better appreciated in Europe, and she soon chose to live there.
One milestone in the breakthrough of women crime novelists was the publication in 1982 of “A is for Alibi,” the start of Sue Grafton’s hugely successful alphabet series. The same can be said of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series, which began in 1990. Book editors took note, and soon many women, from Laura Lippman to Karin Slaughter to Gillian Flynn, were climbing the bestseller lists.
Sarah Weinman’s short-story anthology, “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives,” honors an earlier generation of American women crime writers who she believes have been denied the recognition they deserve. Her book contains stories by 14 writers who were publishing mostly from the early 1940s through the mid-’70s.
A few of the 14, including Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train” and the Tom Ripley novels), Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”) and Vera Caspary (whose “Laura” became the film noir classic) are still remembered, at least by students of the genre; but most of these writers are largely forgotten. These talented women mostly produced what Weinman calls novels of domestic suspense. The authors regard others of their sex as being just as lethal as men, but their crimes usually occur in the kitchen and the bedroom, not out in the mean streets that Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe patrolled.
Weinman starts her collection with a story called “The Heroine” that Highsmith wrote when she was a student at Barnard College. It concerns a creature we’ve met elsewhere — the sweet-faced nanny from hell — and it neatly foreshadows the male psychopaths she would soon unleash.
In a long, sophisticated story called “Sugar and Spice,”Caspary presents two cousins, one poor and beautiful, the other rich and plain, who fall in love with the same man. One of them kills him. At the end of the story, we know which one is blamed, but we’re not sure she’s the killer. Or at least I wasn’t, after several readings. Caspary seems to be playing a game with us, as she did in “Laura,” when a supposedly dead woman comes back to life.
I found “Lost Generation,” a 1971 story by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, painful, in part because I read it as the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington brought back all-too-real memories of racial violence. In the story, a teacher in a small town has supported school integration, and vigilantes decide to teach him a lesson. This fiction is all too real.
In a story that’s gripping and amusing, “The Stranger in the Car” by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, a rather pompous husband and father finds his daughter mixed up in a murder. He tries to take charge of events, but he’s in way over his head, and it’s three women — his daughter, his wife and a family friend — who see the truths that he’s blind to.
In another outstanding story, “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, an old woman goes to visit the family of her sister, who has just died. She senses something wrong in the home, and although she keeps saying, “I’m no detective,” she persists in asking questions of the family until she gets to the bottom of things. In fact, “I’m No Detective” could have been an ironic title for Weinman’s collection because many of the women in these stories truly are detectives. The times just weren’t ready to accept them as such. Let it be noted, too, that despite the publishing-world sexism these writers surely encountered, several did quite well in Hollywood, almost all were regularly published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and most of them either won or were nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s various Edgar Awards. Talent will out, and it’s good that today the playing field is finally level.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES
Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
Edited by Sarah Weinman
Penguin. 356 pp. Paperback, $16