Monday, July 21, 2014

Women on the Edge of a Deserved Revival: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman

home is where the hurt is
In Penguin's anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives [TDTW] Sarah Weinman has put together an important collection of female-authored suspense fiction from the 1940s through the 1970s--one that has been needed for some time.

While I do not agree that the writers Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar were really "forgotten" when this anthology appeared--in the last thirty years these women had work reprinted by small presses (IPL, Carroll and Graf, Crippen & Landru, Stark House, The Feminist Press)--they had not received, to be sure, the attention they deserved, either from important presses like Black Lizard and Library of America or, for the most part, academic surveys.

Like many worthy male crime writers, these women authors have tended to get overlooked, I believe, because they do not fit conveniently into the tough/cozy bifurcation paradigm that critics have fashioned for older crime fiction.  Critic and crime writer Jon L. Breen noted the error in this paradigm nearly a decade ago, in his essay The Ellery Queen Mystery, and I have written about the matter at length in my books Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012) and Clues and Corpses (2013) and most recently in Mysteries Unlocked (2014), the collection of essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene that I edited.

Twentieth-century women suspense writers--going back to Mary Roberts Rinehart in the United States and Marie Belloc Lowndes in the United Kingdom, and up through, among others, Margaret Millar, Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss--have not received their critical due; but neither have what Breen terms "male classicists," such as Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Leo Bruce and Freeman Wills Crofts (the latter a functional stylist at best, but an important figure within the history of the genre), to name a few.

While much remains to be done for the male classicists (and, for that matter, female classicists who have not been crowned "Crime Queens"), with TDTW Sarah Weinman certainly has advanced the cause of the women suspense writers: Library of America will be issuing some works by women suspense writers next year, she tells me.

Of course TDTW has merit beyond that as a piece of advocacy: the stories are interesting and entertaining--if not all necessarily precursors to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, as some reviews have suggested. One can quibble about the inclusion of some of the tales (I found the Shirley Jackson story, "Louisa, Please Come Home," uncharacteristically flat for Jackson and would have much preferred "The Possibility of Evil", while Dorothy Salisbury Davis' "Lost Generation" and Dorothy B. Hughes' "Everybody Needs a Mink" did not seem to me to illustrate the "troubled/twisted" women theme so well), but the book nevertheless is a highly notable collection.

Patricia Highsmith
TDTW opens with Patricia Highsmith's "The Heroine," a 1945 tale about a most devoted nanny; and this psychologically perceptive and superbly chilling piece makes a strong beginning indeed, being a masterful example of what Weinman calls "domestic suspense" (I'll have more to say about the early history of this story this week).

Weinman notes that Highsmith has over the last decade or so been lovingly embraced by the critical community (she currently is the only female writer with a novel included in the Library of America), yet, she adds pointedly:

Highsmith largely wrote about, and was more comfortable with, men. When she wrote about domestic situations in her novels and stories, they were largely to do with male perception, misunderstanding, and delusion.

Weinman deems "The Heroine" as, for Highsmith, "a 'path not taken' tale."

Among the shorter tales, Nedra Tyre's "A Nice Play to Stay," Barbara Callahan's "Lavender Lady" and Miriam Allen deFord's "Mortmain" are superb--and dark--twist stories.  Perhaps Callahan's is most striking in its evocation of the hold of childhood memory, but they are all wonderful.

Joyce Harrington's relentless "The Purple Shroud" is memorably macabre and gruesome, even though I don't know that I find myself quite so sympathetic as some reviewers have been to the protagonist's way of ending what Weinman calls a "toxic marriage."

Aside from "The Heroine", probably my favorite tales in this collection are Vera Caspary's "Sugar and Spice," Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's "The Stranger in the Car," Charlotte Armstrong's "The Splintered Monday," Margaret Millar's "The People Across the Canyon," and Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need."

Armstrong's tale felt more like an actual detective story, rather than "suspense," but the detective figure is a wonderful, wise old woman (what Kevin Killian calls one of Armstrong's "Norns"); and it's certainly the quintessence of unnatural domestic death.

Like Millar's "McGowney's Miracle," previously anthologized in The Lethal Sex, Millar's "The People Across the Canyon" has a poignancy that lingers with the reader.  One cannot help but feel that this tale, which probes the failures with a daughter of two no doubt "good" parents, reflects anxieties Millar and her husband, Ross Macdonald, had about their relationship with their own troubled daughter, Linda.

In "The People across the Canyon"
Margaret Millar silences Perry Mason
With the poignancy in Millar's tale there is a certain mordant humor. Clearly condemnatory of parents who have fallen enslaved to television, Millar zings a then tremendously popular television series, based on the books of a then tremendously popular crime fiction writer:

Marion went over and snapped off the television set....
Well, let's have it," Paul said, trying to conceal his annoyance.

"Have what?"
"Stop kidding around.  You don't usually cut off Perry Mason in the middle of a sentence."
Paul went over and turned the television set back on.  As he had suspected, it was the doorman who'd killed the nightclub owner with a baseball bat, not the blonde dancer or her young husband or the jealous singer.

Celia Fremlin's "A Case of Maximum Need" is a creepy story of an octogenarian woman who is adamant to a young social worker that she does not want a telephone installed in her "Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly." The career of Celia Fremlin (1914-2009) overlapped that of her "sister" Englishwoman and crime writer Ruth Rendell, with whom she shared much affinity, I believe.  Both women wrote (Rendell of course still does) crime fiction with precise hands and penetrating eyes:

Sunday was the day when relatives of all ages, bearing flowers and pot plants in proportion to their guilt, came billowing in through the swing doors to spend an afternoon of stunned boredom with their dear ones....

Celia Fremlin's death five years ago was little noted, which is a shame.  Her debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, won the Edgar Award for best crime novel in 1960, and for some time before her death she was remembered, if at all, primarily for this one work; yet she gave us a rich corpus of suspense fiction. Happily, her books have been reprinted in the UK; unhappily, they have not been reprinted in the US.

This brings us to the anthology's two novelettes or novellas, Caspary's "Sugar and Spice" and Holding's "The Stranger in the Car."  These both are rich works, full of interesting social observation and suspense (Holding's more legitimately "domestic").

The ironically-titled "Sugar and Spice" is a "rich woman-poor woman" story of an intense and deadly rivalry between two cousins and has an interesting narrative structure, typical of this clever author. My only criticism, a matter of personal taste, is that it is perhaps a tad "slick" (incidentally, don't believe the reviewers who fashionably, if carelessly, label all the tales in TDTW "noir"; they aren't--nor do they need to be such to stand on their own as fine fiction).

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
I preferred "The Stranger in the Car," which I found darker and twistier than "Sugar and Space."  In fact, I think it's my favorite piece in the entire anthology.

Only at the end does one fully realize all that has been going on in this impressive crime novella, about a businessman husband and father who tries to stomp out all the fires he sees kindling in his mostly female household. The psychological clueing in this novella has, like the best novels of Margaret Millar, a Christie-like deftness.

Holding was much praised by Raymond Chandler and Anthony Boucher, among many others, and her novel The Blank Wall (1947) was successfully filmed twice (The Reckless Moment, 1949, starring Joan Bennett and James MasonThe Deep End, 2001, starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic), but more recently has not received the critical attention that she merits (some of her novels have been reprinted by Stark House).

If you haven't read TDTW and you like suspense fiction, my advice to you is to read it as soon as you can, and then read some of the novels by the fine authors Sarah Weinman has included in this excellent anthology.

PS.: Here's John Norris' take on TDTW over at his Pretty Sinister blog.


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful breakdown and review. I bought the anthology a few months ago and will read it soon. Slightly off-topic, I discovered Margaret Millar earlier this year with BEAST IN VIEW her Edgar award winning novel. I loved her voice so much that I went out and bought quite a few of her books and you're right a few of the authors I recognize from your post are available today and are even digitized.

    1. Keishon, thanks for the comment and I totally agree with you about Millar--one of my my very favorite crime writers.

  2. Nice review Curt, thanks for all the info and insight....

    1. Glad you liked, Moira, they are interesting writers.

  3. Replies
    1. I just discovered this blog today, and it's amazing! This anthology sounds great. Can't wait to see if you have written much about Ruth Rendell, one of my favorites. Do you tend to avoid spoilers in this blog?

    2. Hi Shane-Malcolm, so glad you are enjoying the blog. Just use the search box and chances are you will find something you might like! There's a good bit on Ruth Rendell, as I am a great fan of her. I definitely aim to avoid spoilers. Sometimes I fear I don't say enough about plot! Let's see, I've done Simisola and Asta's Book and Not in the Flesh I know. I'm planning to get to one of her newer ones soon.

    3. I love Ruth Rendell and I've read two of her books thus far. I'll make sure to check out your archives. I loved A JUDGEMENT IN STONE. Brilliant book because she gives you the ending before the book even gets started and keeps you in suspense till the end. How she did that was amazing.

    4. Keishon, use the search box up on the right for Ruth Rendell and you will definitely find some things. My blog posts tend to be pretty long and I've gotten a bit lazy about doing labels. I used to read her constantly in the 1990s and still enjoy going back to ones I've missed, or even rereading some. Great writer.

  4. What a great review -- many thanks. As you say, most of the authors haven't really been forgotten, but most of them no longer receive the attention they deserve. I can see I'll have to speak sweetly to my wife about topics such as imminent birthdays and Christmas stockings . . .

    Oh, and thanks for the shout-out for John Dickson Carr. He seems to be grossly undervalued by many modern readers.

  5. Hi, glad you liked the review--and I'm sure you'll like the book! Very much agree about Carr. I and others say more about him in Mysteries Unlocked, the essay collection dedicated to Carr's biographer, Doug Greene.

  6. I dislike the use of the term noir to describe any "dark crime fiction." It's getting to be as bad as that other catch-all adjective cozy (or cosy) to describe most retro-traditional detective stories. This is a fine in-depth review of Weinman's important volume. I have to confess (dare I publicly admit this?): I never got to reading the two novellas to the end and I also skipped over three other stories. Now I'll have to go back and finish the book. I see I've missed out on some of the best of the lot. Celia Fremlin is Ruth Rendell's sister?! How come I never knew that? Maybe I read it somewhere ages ago and simply forgot.

    And thanks for the link to my blog post. But you outshine me this time. Had I written mine after you I'd be directing everyone to read this much better review.

    1. Hi, John, I was using "sister" metaphorically--maybe I'd better make that clear in the piece! Like "sisters in crime," you know.

      I came up with the bright idea of reviewing Dorothy Salisbury Davis' The Gentle Murderer and Helen Nielsen's The Kind Man, but then I noticed you beat me to it some time ago!

    2. *A* Gentle Murderer, I should say!

    3. Oh, one other thing, John: so glad you agree about promiscuous "noir" labeling! Great point about cozy labeling too. These days it seems like everything is either labeled "noir" or "cozy"--rather an over-simplification!