Women Crime Writers
Eight Suspense Novels
of the 1940s & '50s
Edited by Sarah Weinman
Library of America. 2 vols.,
1,512 pp, $35/$70
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Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky
nolead ends The eight novels in this Library of America collection fall into at least five categories, judging from the jacket copy. The authors, all women writing in the United States in the 1940s and '50s, created crime fiction (according to the collection's title) and suspense (according to its subtitle).
Cover blurbs from two female crime writers who emerged in the 1980s invoke noir (Sara Paretsky) and psychological suspense (Sue Grafton). And the front flap of both volumes says the books anticipate "the 'domestic suspense' novels of recent years" - such novels as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
This collection, however, is even more diverse than all that. There's a heist novel here (Dolores Hitchens' Fools' Gold) and one of the first serial-killer stories (In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes). Perhaps most unexpected, there's comedy, too, in the delightful set piece with which Charlotte Armstrong sets up the endangered-child drama of Mischief and, albeit of a more macabre kind, in Patricia Highsmith's The Blunderer.
Three of the novels play up crime fiction's gothic inheritance: tales of women haunted by the past or trapped and trying to make their way in confined settings of home or university. These include Helen Eustis' The Horizontal Man, Margaret Millar's Beast in View, and The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. The last of these is a supremely noir story in the David Goodis manner, though it depicts a world far from Goodis' cold and violent Philadelphia streets.
And what of Vera Caspary's unclassifiable Laura? The title character of Otto Preminger's 1944 movie version is a gauzy, unattainable mystery woman who drives men to fascination, even obsession. Johnny Mercer's lyrics to the film's much-recorded theme song include lines such as "Laura is the face in the misty light" and "That was Laura, but she's only a dream." Great stuff, but not much to do with Caspary's novel.
Her Laura Hunt, unlike Gene Tierney, who played her in the movie, is not especially beautiful. Rather, she is a successful advertising copywriter to whom three men - a detective, an essayist and newspaper columnist, and Laura's unworthy fiance - are attracted without her having to do much about it. Far from a temptress or a scheming femme fatale, she's a kind of maypole around whom the men dance, and she behaves, all told, with remarkable self-possession.
Each of the three men (the fiance in the form of a police report), and Laura herself, gets a turn as narrator, the fiance the least reliable, the columnist the funniest:
"I have never stooped to the narration of a mystery story. At the risk of seeming somewhat less than modest, I shall quote from my own works. The sentence, so often reprinted, that opens my essay 'Of Sound and Fury' is reprinted here:
'When, during the 1936 campaign, I learned that the President was a devotee of mystery stories, I voted a straight Republican ticket.' "
Most of the books and authors collected here by editor Sarah Weinman were well known in their own day and are less so now. Armstrong, Eustis, and Hughes won Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, which also honored Hughes and Millar for lifetime achievement. Books by several of the authors became movies featuring the screen's biggest stars and directors.
These authors may have also made more money from their writing than did their male counterparts, at least when their work appeared in magazine form. But changing social mores (second-wave feminism? the Vietnam War?) and the vicissitudes of publishing gradually pushed them out of the spotlight. Now, thanks to Weinman and the Library of America, they are back in the conversation about the best American crime writers.
Peter Rozovsky is an Inquirer copy editor. He writes about crime fiction
at Detectives Beyond Borders, www.detectivesbeyondborders.