Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Neglected Writers, Forgotten Lines

When Troubled Daughters, Twisted WivesSarah Weinman's anthology of tales of psychological suspense fiction by women crime writers, was published last year, the project received much critical praise (just the blurbs in the book itself--all from women writers--go on for three pages). I fully concur that a book like Weinman's was long overdue and I recommend it to readers (I'm planning a full review next week).

Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the stance of some of the commentators on the book, who seemed prone to make the comparative neglect of some of these authors all a matter of gender. These women writers were neglected, so the argument goes, by men, because these writers were women. Yet, as Weinman herself recognizes, these writers were much praised in their day (by women and men), and were award-winning and popular.

Additionally, some of them who wrote novels, like Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, were kept in print into the 1980s and 1990s by presses like IPL and Carroll and Graf. Carroll and Graf recognized that Hughes was every bit a master of her craft, just like Cornell Woolrich, say, and reprinted both authors.  Douglas Greene, who was an advisor to IPL, has gone on, with his excellent Crippen and Landru press, to publish short story collections by two of the authors Weinman anthologizes (Millar and Vera Caspary) and soon will be publishing a collection by a third (Armstrong).

Margaret Millar
Potentate of Page-turners
I've had numerous conversations with male mystery fans where they highly praised some of these women writers, especially Margaret Millar (with, in Millar's case, the resultant debate about whether she or her husband, Ross Macdonald, was the better writer).

I was introduced to mystery fiction (and "mature" fiction in general) in 1974 at the age of eight by a wise old woman named Agatha Christie. As a young man I read and enjoyed a multitude of British crime queens: Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Heyer, Tey, Brand, Ferrars. When I started reading Margaret Millar in the 1990s (those IPL editions, readily available at my local Barnes & Noble), I was floored. She is one of the few mystery authors I have read where I found that I really "couldn't put the book down."

So it's hard for me to view the modern neglect of these writers as simply another round of conflict in the gender wars.  In my own work on neglected crime fiction writers, male and female, I have come to conclude that the Higher Powers of the publishing world (excluding small and micro presses, which are doing great work resurrecting forgotten authors) find it convenient to cram older crime writers into two gendered boxes:

(1) British "cozy" writers (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey, Heyer, etc.--the occasional donnish male Brit, perhaps Michael Innes or Edmund Crispin or maybe Nicholas Blake, is thrown in)

(2) American "tough" writers (hard-boiled and noir: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, etc.--of late Patricia Highsmith is likely to be included)

Look at the Grand Poobah of prestige publishing, Library of America.  LOA has opened its sanctum to crime writers, but apparently only if these writers are hard-boiled, noir, tough and, yes, it seems, with one exception, male.  Here from their website is their list of published crime writers with individual volumes:

Raymond Chandler (2 vols.)
Dashiell Hammett (2 vols.)
David Goodis
Elmore Leonard

LOA's American Noir set includes novels by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Patrica Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis and Chester Himes.

Fifteen writers, and one of them, Patricia Highmith, a woman.  While it's not merely women writers who are being neglected by LOA--evidently no male writer who wrote crime fiction that was neither noir nor hard-boiled need be considered--the gender disparity is dramatic.

The Only Woman? Patricia Highsmith

However, elsewhere things are looking up for once-prominent older women crime writers. Digital editions of books by Armstrong, Hughes, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mignon Eberhart and Mary Roberts Rinehart for example, are now available from Mysterious Press (they've brought back Ellery Queen too, by the way: a male writer(s) who has been, like these women, "unjustly neglected").

For my part, before reviewing Sarah Weinman's anthology of women crime writers, I'm going to take a look at a much older one: The Lethal Sex, the 1959 Anthology of the Mystery Writers of America. Fourteen crime stories, all by women writers, in an anthology edited by--John D. MacDonald!  Check in for it tomorrow!


  1. Look forward to the review! Much to my surprise (and perhaps some embarrassment) I did not know of THE LETHAL SEX until now. Many other all-women anthologies turned up in my prior research but not this, and here it, too, had 14 stories. Another to track down clearly!

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks for posting! It's going to be very interesting comparing and contrasting your introduction with Macdonald's. I'll just say for now that his take is rather, shall we say, "of its time." There is one story in particular I would love to get your opinion of--I know absolutely nothing about its author--and it so shockingly visceral!

  2. This is a very interesting post as it gives me a good understanding of women crime writers whose books I read intermittently. Last year, I almost purchased "A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women" by Elizabeth George but passed it up at the time as I already had a lot to read. Now I wish I'd picked it up.

    1. It's a good representation, Prashant, George's anthology. I'll be saying some more about classic suspense writers over the rest of the week!

  3. I'm wondering if Charity Blackstock, Shelley Smith or Ursula Curtiss wrote any short stories? I'd love to see them (and many others) in a second anthology of domestic suspense writing from Sarah. (hint , hint)

    1. John, Ursula Curtiss is in "The Lethal Sex." I agree there should be a sequel from Sarah in future. Maybe "Merry Widows, Buried Husbands"?