(Library of America)
WOMEN CRIME WRITERS
Eight Crime Novels of the 1940s & 1950s

Library of America. Two volumes. 1,512 pp. $70

An American woman, Anna Katharine Green, enjoys the distinction of introducing the world’s first series detective, Ebenezer Gryce, in her novel “The Leavenworth Case,” published in 1878 — nine years before Sherlock Holmes took his first bow. Three generations later, the dominant forms of mystery were the hard-boiled (written by American men such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain) and the cozy (the specialty of British women, notably Agatha Christie). But as editor Sarah Weinman shows in this collection assembled for the Library of America, during that same period — the ’40s and ’50s — American women were at work on something relatively new: the psychological crime novel.

Two of the four books in the first volume, which covers the ’40s, will resonate with movie buffs: Vera Caspary’s “Laura,” which director Otto Preminger made into a classic of the same name starring Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb; and Dorothy B. Hughes’s “In a Lonely Place,” directed by Nicholas Ray with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in the leads.

The other two novels in Volume 1 have been rescued from obscurity. “The Blank Wall,” by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, depicts a family — minus dad, who is overseas in the military — coping with World War II. The mom, Lucia, who relies on a maid, considers herself a failure. “Why is it ‘housewife’?” she muses. “What would I call myself if we lived in a hotel? Nobody ever [calls you] just ‘wife,’ or even just ‘mother.’ If you haven’t got a job, and you don’t keep house, then you aren’t anything, apparently.” Her actions, though, prove otherwise. She copes skillfully with the wartime rationing system and draws on an unsuspected resourcefulness after her father applies too much force in warding off an unwelcome visitor, a slimeball his granddaughter is carrying on with. The pleasure of reading “The Blank Wall” lies in watching Lucia rise to an occasion she couldn’t possibly have anticipated or trained for.

The fourth novel from the 1940s is “The Horizontal Man,” by Helen Eustis. The eponymous man, an English professor at a New England college for women, dies on the second page after being brained by a poker, and the question to be answered is this: Out of the many students and female faculty members who fell for his Irish charm, which one wielded that poker? But the psychology brought to bear on the case — a split personality, with neither half aware of what the other has been up to — is dubious, and the surprise ending may strike readers as overly contrived.

Volume 2, covering the 1950s, has no weak entries. In “Mischief,” Charlotte Armstrong paints a memorable portrait of the babysitter as monster. The Joneses are visiting Manhattan, where the husband has been tapped to give a speech at a banquet. Having brought along their young daughter, Bunny, the parents are in need of a sitter for the big night. No problem — a hotel employee recommends his niece, Nell. When Nell shows up, she makes a bad impression: reticent and sullen. But the Joneses override their qualms and leave for the banquet. They’re hardly out the door when Nell cuts loose, trying on Mrs. Jones’s clothes, luring a male fellow-guest to the suite, and tying up and gagging Bunny. Armstrong’s telegram-curt prose can take some getting used to. (Example: “Her feel of time wasting was because she’d been wishing too long to come.”) But Nell is such a striking incarnation of greedy waywardness that the reader can’t wait to see what new excess she will commit next.

That old chestnut, the split personality, returns in Margaret Millar’s “Beast in View,” which won an Edgar for best mystery novel. I can’t say the device is any more plausible here than it was in “The Horizontal Man,” but Millar’s storytelling brio compensates for her creaky characterizations.

Dolores Hitchens’s well-crafted “Fools’ Gold” (the basis for Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Band of Outsiders”) pits two young, male amateur crooks against some veterans. The girlfriend of one of the lads is a companion to an older woman who’s been letting a friend stash money — stacks and stacks of $100 bills — in the house without asking where it came from. Tipped off by the companion, the young punks set out to pull off a heist. They cross paths with old pros who have the same idea, and the clash of generations and crime-styles makes for suspenseful reading.

The gem of the whole set comes from the one writer who has not suffered neglect: Patricia Highsmith. Not suffered neglect, I should say, since her death. While she was alive (from 1921 to 1995), the Texas-born Highsmith was more honored in Europe than in the States. But in the last couple of decades, most of her books have been revived, including the one reprinted here, “The Blunderer.”

As demonstrated in novels such as “Strangers on a Train” (filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (filmed by both René Clément and Anthony Minghella), Highsmith was fascinated by various forms of double trouble: for example, the proposal to trade murders in “Strangers on a Train” and Tom Ripley killing his best friend and assuming his identity in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The doubling motif gets a new twist in “The Blunderer” when Walter Stackhouse reads a newspaper account of an unusual death. The estranged wife of a bookstore owner took a bus from Newark to Albany, got off at a rest stop, and was stabbed to death. Walter is so fed up with his own wife, the selfish, cruel and half-crazy Clara, that he intuits the truth: The killer was the woman’s husband, who trailed the bus in his car and lured her away from the terminal during the rest stop.

Walter takes steps toward replicating that MO but does not follow all the way through. Clara solves his problem, however, by throwing herself to her death from a cliff behind her bus’s rest stop. But in the aftermath, Walter makes one mistake after another, such as paying a visit to the killer he almost copied and telling the police shaky lies about his whereabouts on the night of Clara’s suicide because he fears they won’t believe the truth.

The police brutality in “The Blunderer” will serve as a reminder of why we need the Miranda warning, as well as fodder for debate about how much guilt one incurs by almost committing a serious crime only to flinch at the last minute. And Highsmith shows the right way to compose a psychological thriller. Not by repackaging the latest theory aired by shrinks, but by burrowing deep into yourself to comprehend and dramatize human motives and quirks.

Dennis Drabelle is Book World’s mysteries editor.