Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Wicked and Wounded Women: The Lethal Sex (1959), edited by John D. Macdonald

....As you read each [story], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman.  And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.

She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy.  I guess this is a love note to that woman.  She is a very special gal.  And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere....

....Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents...and their savage little minds.

--John D. MacDonald, Introduction to The Lethal Sex 

Reading John D. MacDonald's introduction to the 1959 Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Lethal Sex, that he edited, I was struck, 55 years later, by its ill-chosen, patronizing tone (it reads like a sexual proposition en masse to the assembled authors).

At least the MWA focused on women writers, even if they did get a hard-boiled male author to edit and introduce the book. Now, as JDM might say, shall we join the ladies?

There are fourteen stories in The Lethal Sex.  Interestingly, there's not a huge amount of crossover with Sarah Weinman's recent Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.  We again have the magnificent Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen deFord and Nedra Tyre, but that's it.  However, many of the stories that Weinman collected in her anthology are post-1959, from the 1960s and 1970s.

Macdonald writes that he wanted in his anthology "bite and violence and atmosphere....If you adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you've bought the wrong book."

Two British authors, Christianna Brand and Anthony Gilbert (yes, AG is a woman), contribute excellent and highly characteristic pieces, Brand's, "Dear Mr. Macdonald," a coy and clever murder story about two sisters, and Gilbert's, "You'll Be the Death of Me," another of this author's parables of the plain woman and the handsome devil (who may be a murdering devil).

Millar's story, "McGowney's Miracle," is an odd--and oddly moving--story about a mortician and the "client" he didn't actually bury.  It definitely has a noirish quality to it.

The concluding tale is a novelette/novella by Juanita Sheridan, whose mystery novel series in Hawaii has been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press and sounds charming.  "There Are No Snakes in Hawaii" tells of an artist and his philistine wife and how their marriage becomes dangerously unglued in Hawaii. It's a compelling tale with excellent local color.

Of the remaining ten stories, my favorites were:

"Snowball," by Ursula Curtiss, one of the most important "domestic suspense" writers of the 1950s and 1960s in my view.  At the snowbound country cottage did the husband murder the wife or the wife the husband?  Or something else?

"He Got What He Deserved," by Bernice Carey, a fine piece or irony about a mother and a daughter and the man who comes between them.

"Two for Tea," by Margaret Manners, which was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents the previous year, pits a calculating wife against a scheming mistress. Who will win?

"To Be Found and Read," by Miriam Allen deFord, with a male protagonist and a whipsaw final paragraph.

"What Is Going to Happen?", by Nedra Tyre, a dramatic monologue by an eight-year-old girl who seems to have done something very bad.

"Thirty-Nine," by D. Jenkins Smith, about a wife reaching the "dangerous age," is in some ways the most striking of the bunch, visceral in a way I wasn't expecting from such a volume, like a precursor to some of the books by Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott.

This tale would have made a fine addition to Sarah Weinman's anthology (about which I hope to writing here on Sunday).  Weinman provided some excellent short bios of the authors, something Macdonald did not do.  What about D. Jenkins Smith?


  1. I swear, that introduction should be reprinted in full to be fully remarked upon!

    So, since it was brought up in the comments of the previous post: I would certainly love to edit a sequel to TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, but my next editorial project is for...the Library of America (which addresses, in part, a point you made in your previous post.) But a hypothetical sequel would certainly include Brand, Curtiss, Jean Potts (a new dark horse favorite of mine) and Juanita Sheridan (that novelette was already on my radar). Though now I am curious about the rest of the writers included -- I certainly know nothing at all about D Jenkins Smith -- maybe a pseudonym?

    1. Good to hear about LOA and that "the gals" (channeling Macdonald here) will finally get their due! It's about time. I'm dying to learn more about D. Jenkins Smith--very mysterious!

  2. I'm going to have to find a copy of this one, Curt. Thanks for this fine review.

    Jean Potts! She's another one I recently discovered and have lined up for a post at Pretty Sinister Books. And what about Joan Fleming? I am addicted to her books. Her short stories were was published in The Evening Standard in the UK and over here in EQMM and The Saint Mystery Magazine. I have all of the Lily Wu books by Juanita Sheridan but still haven't read one of them. I'll have to rectify that.

  3. I've read some Jean Potts too, I think she was one of the bigger names in this field in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Glad you liked the review. I thought the Sheridan story was quite good. I have to admit I had not even heard of her novels until I looked up her name for this blog piece.

    1. She was a Doubleday Crime Club author and for a very long time I was a big collector of the 30s and 40s authors from that imprint. Those are the books I have, not the Rue Morgue reprints. I've become less rabid about collecting/amassing DCC books, but still snag the rare titles when they turn up no matter what the condition of the copy.

  4. Oh, golly, I have to find this book: so many writers whom I admire.

    One, oddly, is not Anthony Gilbert -- whom until now I hadn't realized wasn't a chap. Way back in the '70s I read several of her novels and despised their author as the worst sort of reactionary.

  5. I recently read this anthology and was disappointed with at least half of MacDonald's selections. Some of the stories are excellent, but many are quite poor, chiefly because of plot holes. When I wrote a review of it for Amazon, I gave it only 3 stars out of 5.

  6. As you probably know the anthology has now been reprinted as part of the MWA's "classic anthologies" series. I've just received it and look forward to reading it as most of the writers included are favourite of mine. I could have done however without Laurie R. King's "matronizing" preface that seems to have no object but placate presentist readers that might be offended by JDMcD's introduction and sneering at and belittling a man who was a product of his time and being dead can't defend himself.

    This being said, JDMcD's choices reflect both his priorities and prejudices as a writer. That most of the stories are not traditional mysteries shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone since McD openly dispised puzzle plots (read his contribution to the MWA's Mystery Handbook in which he goes out of his way to lambast Golden Age writers) and favoured character-driven narratives. This is paradoxically what makes this anthology the most "modern" of those issued at the time - it easily could've been edited by Otto Penzler fifty years later! I'd be curious to know how it was received by contemporary critics, do you know?

    1. I don't know that the book got much critical notice at all. I tried to find the Boucher review but the NYT search engine these days us utter shite, so no avail. On the matter of the Laurie King preface, I have to say I started the ball rolling on that one.

      I reviewed this back in 2014, and it caught the eye of Sarah Weinman, who was appalled in the Macdonald piece (as was Jamie Bernthal in UK). My comments on the sexism are much briefer, but as you can see I thought JM's tone was awful, even by the standard of the 1950s (a low standard). To me Macdonald came off like an utter ass (sorry he isn't here to defend himself but that is the wages of time and death).

      But of course you're right, JM put together a very "modern" collection, for which he got no credit from King. In her stated view, no man, however sympathetic, would have been acceptable as an author of an all-female anthology. I must admit I don't believe it would have killed the MWA to find a woman editor, but I suspect, sadly, it would have been seen as diminishing the credibility of the project. A commentary on the times, indeed.

    2. should have typed *editor* of an all-female anthology.

    3. What would be interesting to know is whether this collection was a MWA initiative or JDMcD's own idea. Assuming the former is the case they might easily have found a female editor had they wanted one, since 1957's For Love or Money was very efficiently edited by Dorothy Gardiner. There may have been other female-edited anthologies at the time but I couldn't find a complete list of the MWA's publications over the years.

    4. Will have to check out the Gardiner book. I don't know of other women-edited mystery anthologies from the period, would be interesting to know.