Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s
(Library of America)
US: Sep 2015
It’s clear that crime fiction is experiencing something of a revival as of late, with the runaway success of what has been referred to as “feminist noir”. Books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published Millenium Trilogy have enjoyed considerable success not only as bestselling fiction but also as blockbuster film adaptations.
That good crime fiction makes for even better crime film is old hat to even the most casual of pop culture enthusiasts. One need not know anything about Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler; the figure of the “hard-boiled” detective and the femme fatale who serves has his foil have, in the decades since their introduction to the cultural landscape, become permanent fixtures there, whether in parodic guises or more substantial narrative forms.
My own introduction to crime fiction came by way of the movies. Growing up, my mother would leave the television on TCM while she went about her housework, and I would sit glued to the screen for hours. While too young to really get all the nuances of sexual anxiety and existential dread that are characteristic of films noirs, I was drawn nonetheless to the dramatic lighting, beautiful women, and relentless suspense dramatized in some of period’s most iconic films.
Otto Preminger’s Laura was one of my favorites, and it has remained a kind of leitmotif throughout my life, returning to me at different moments in my maturation always with a slightly different lesson. As such, I was understandably excited to learn about the recent publication of the excellent Library of America box set Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s, edited by Sarah Weinman. Not only did the anthology contain the source texts for several of my favorite old Hollywood crime films, but it contained Laura the 1942 Vera Caspary text that later became one of my favorite films.
Laura is the first book in the two-volume box set, and so I began reading, expecting as I did so to experience the pleasure one gets from hearing a favorite story told again but in a different medium. It was all there—Waldo Lydecker’s pompous narration of Laura’s life, McPherson’s clipped “hard-boiled” detective’s voice, and the delayed entrance of the titular character.
However, in its fourth part, the novel takes a distinctive turn that’s not present in its film adaptation: it allows Laura to tell her own story. “Last week, when I thought I was to be married,” she narrates, “I burned my girlhood behind me.” For two decades I had watched a film in which Laura is completely circumscribed by the voices of the men around her, and in this anthology, I was hearing her speak for the first time.
My experience with Laura was by no means an isolated incident. All throughout the eight novels featured here, I realized how much the feminine perspective of these writers had been suppressed, either by editorial changes or the effacement of their literary work altogether in histories of the genre. I have always associated the crime tradition with the “hard-boiled” patois of Sam Spade or the sexual chicanery of the paradigmatic femme fatale, and while those elements are absolutely iconic features of the genre, the eight novels collected here provide a much more complex picture of what mid-century crime fiction looked like.
They also provide a more robust catalogue of the kinds of anxieties that afflicted American culture after the War as veterans returned home to reclaim their jobs from the women who had been performing them. The forced return to the home experienced by many middle class women in the late ‘40s and ‘50s could only have felt like a kind of entrapment after the relative freedom they enjoyed during the War, and that domestic claustrophobia provides the foundation for the various crimes, double-crossings, and fatal mistakes that comprise Weinman’s fabulously curated box set.
The eight novels come separated by decade into two volumes of around 800 pages each. The books themselves are of the same high quality as the Library of America’s other offerings: printed on lightweight paper and hardbound with a silk marker. Each volume is wrapped in a graphic dust jacket rendering of a woman’s face and hair, with respective covers suggesting either the raven-haired or blonde bombshell starlets who have made the femme fatale a fixture in the American cultural imagination.
The “brunette” ‘40s volume features groundbreaking works by Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, while the “blonde” ‘50s collection contains equally important novels by Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Dolores Hitchens. While each collection definitely has its standout works, all the included novels are successful as both objects of entertainment and feminine interventions in what is largely considered a masculine literary form. That women crime writers from this era often subverted the generic conventions of the “hard-boiled” style credited largely to male writers like Hammett and Chandler is, perhaps, best expressed by anthology editor Sarah Weinman in her online introduction to the series:
The midcentury generation of American women crime writers created a tradition that I call “domestic suspense.” Writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Vera Caspary, Helen Nielsen, Nedra Tyre, and Ursula Curtiss were less concerned with pre-existing rules of the genre, instead preferring to blur boundaries, write outside the lines. They featured a more subtle approach to the human condition, where the most important dilemmas centered on the vulnerability of children, a threatening spouse, or the subtle sadism of social mores. The overly fragile heroines gave way to more complicated, layered protagonists who chafed against pre-war roles and found inner strength battling dread from all corners. These characters differed considerably from those in the novels of their male peers, who were more often ornamental displays or incidental players in the theater of the brooding, hardboiled male detective. You wouldn’t catch a woman like Sylvia Nicolai, the cop’s wife who engineers Dix Steele’s doom in Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, in one of Mickey Spillane’s ultraviolent Mike Hammer novels.
This passage from the introduction is indicative of the quality of the box set’s online supplementary materials, which collectively constitute a substantial resource for both scholars and crime novel enthusiasts. This includes a chronology not only of the anthologized novels but all the works written by the eight featured authors, as well as a chronology of their film adaptations.
Also available are a set of “appreciations” in which contemporary writers reflect on the significance (both personal and public) of each respective novel. While these provide both synopses of plot and also a critical frame within which one can choose to read the texts, the real good stuff is in the material collected in the margins. This often includes both popular and academic critical commentary on the books and their film adaptations, making the box set’s website a kind of one-stop shop for anyone researching anything in the neighborhood of midcentury women’s crime writing.
These eight novels were clearly selected by Weinman according to both their literary quality and their lasting impact on American culture. However, it’s clear that the set by no means exhausts the catalogue of works by 20th century women crime writers. What the box set does represent is a significant step toward a more nuanced perspective not only of the genre, but of women’s contributions to midcentury American culture more broadly. As fantastic as it has been to see contemporary women crime authors reimagining suspense through a feminine lens, it’s even more encouraging to see such feminist interventions contextualized within a broader history of women’s writing. I can only hope that this collection is one of many similar recuperative projects to come.
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