Sleuthing

These forgotten female crime writers had no time for femme fatales or dowdy housewives

A slew of women authors produced crime fiction that presented a different perspective on the genders and were well-received in their day — but faded into obscurity as time wore on

When detective Philip Marlowe first encounters Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s beloved 1939 detective novel, she has draped herself provocatively over a sofa, beautiful legs on full display. Marlowe immediately sizes her up as “trouble.” Vivian’s husband has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and she asks far too many questions for Marlowe’s liking. “I don’t mind your showing me your legs,” he says. “They’re swell legs, and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance … But don’t waste your time trying to cross examine me.”

This framing of the genders — dastardly dames, inscrutable P.I.s — is typical of classic American crime fiction, which by and large was written by men, about men, for the purpose of reaffirming masculine identity in the wake of two devastating world wars. Starting in the 1920s, the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler pioneered the now-archetypal hardboiled detective, who moved through sordid cityscapes with gruff cynicism and determined solitude. The most interesting women characters inevitably emerged as femme fatales: sultry, dangerous, and never a true match for the detective’s steely resolve.

Many readers may not know that while male giants of the genre were writing about hardened gumshoes and fiery femmes, a slew of female authors were producing rollicking crime fiction that often presented a very different perspective on the genders. These books were well-received in their day, but faded into obscurity as time wore on. Fortunately, a recently published anthology brings the forgotten foremothers of American crime fiction back into the spotlight. Women Crime Writers collects little-known novels that were written by female authors in the 1940s and 50s. The anthology’s origins are, appropriately, rooted in a bit of mystery.

Women Crime Writers consists of two volumes and includes eight novels: Laura by Vera Caspary, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustice, Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong, Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens, Beast in View by Margaret Mullar, and The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith. The anthology was curated by Sarah Weinman, who is a news editor at Publisher’s Marketplace and a scholar of crime fiction. She became enthralled by the genre in the 1990s, while she was a college student, and quickly found that many of her favorite authors were women: Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman. But it seemed to Weinman that these modern purveyors of crime fiction — known for weaving feminist threads into classic hardboiled tropes — had been plunked down into the genre’s timeline, devoid of notable female predecessors.

“I was like, ‘Well, who came before them?’” Weinman said. “I didn’t know who they were.”

And so Weinman did some sleuthing. As she delved into the genre’s history, she uncovered neglected — and in some cases, out-of-print — works by women writers who had achieved considerable success while they were alive. All of the anthologized novels were, in fact, adapted for film or television. “I found that these were women who were well-known in their day,” Weinman said. “They published well, they were reviewed in major outlets like The New York Times — both the daily and The Book Review’s mystery column — even sometimes in The New Yorker, and The New Republic.

women crime writers

Sarah Weinman and “Women Crime Writers.” Courtesy of Library of America.

The stunted legacies of these authors can be attributed to both happenstance and the inner workings of the literary world. Many critics of the 1960s championed the mystery writer Ross MacDonald, for example, but paid little attention to his wife Margaret Mullar, whose work is featured in Women Crime Writers. In the 1980s, the author Barry Gifford founded a publishing house called Black Lizard for the purpose of reprinting and re-popularizing his favorite pulp novels—most of which were written by men.

“To have a two-volume set of eight novels by women, it makes a statement, but it also, I think, corrects the narrative of crime fiction,” Weinman said. “There were these great women working all the while. It’s just the vast majority of people didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Or maybe they knew and then forgot.”

Women Crime Writers marks Weinman’s second foray into the hidden corners of female-authored crime fiction. In 2013, she edited an anthology called Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, which highlighted fourteen novels by women living between WWII and the height of the cold war. In these works, motherhood, marriage, and affairs of the household become the settings for scenes of lawlessness and terror. Women Crime Writers features a broader thematic selection, but also celebrates women pioneers of a distinct subgenre of crime fiction: the psychological suspense novel.

“This wasn’t Golden Age, classical detection, and it wasn’t hardboiled private detective stories,” Weinman explained. “This had more to do with characters. This had more to do with suspense and fear.”

For the most part, the works featured in Women Crime Writers are not carried by the brilliance of a sardonic P.I., or peppered with the clues of a classic “whodunit.” Instead, these books are propelled by taught narratives, dazzling plot twists, and a profound sense of unease. Often, secure institutions are disrupted, jerking the natural order of things into chaos. In Mischief, for example, a menacing babysitter threatens the wellbeing of a child placed in her careA quiet women’s college is upended by a popular professor’s murder in The Horizontal Man. A war veteran becomes a serial killer in In a Lonely Place.

The authors in Women Crime Writers also distinguish themselves by offering up female characters that transcend the tropes of femme fatales, virginal sweethearts, or dowdy housemaids. “The way I like to say it is that the men were telling stories that assuaged masculinity and gave people an escapist fantasy,” Weinman said. “The women were just telling the truth.”

Some of the novels seem to deliberately subvert prevailing concepts of femininity. Vera Caspary’s Laura begins with the brutal murder of the titular character, who gradually emerges as popular, career-driven, and sexually-confident. While toying with multiple perspectives, the novel meditates on the perils of being an assured young woman in a male-dominated world — and packs one hell of a plot twist to boot.

In The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay-Holdinga wartime housewife named Lucia Holley becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld when a scuzzy pornographer takes interest in her daughter, and then winds up dead on her property. While quietly, frantically warding off blackmailers and murderers, Lucia is for the first time able to detach herself from her husband and children. She is terrified, and a little thrilled. “[Her family] would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage,” Sanxay Holding writes, “but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be.”

 Other works are less political, but still bring a distinctly female perspective to the genre. The psychotic babysitter in Mischief is dangerous, but unlike the archetypal femme fatale, she is aggressively unsexy. The same could be said of the deranged woman at the center of Beast in View, who torments her nemeses with obscene phone calls that tap into their deepest insecurities. As Weinman puts it, these novels depict “the dangerous woman without the male gaze.”

With its gutsy, crackling eight novels, Women Crime Writers challenges the perception of American crime fiction as a genre shaped by men, and dominated by brooding male figures. But it only begins to scratch the surface of women-authored suspense novels from the WWII era. Weinman selected the eight works that are included in the anthology because she felt they best represented the preoccupations of American society in the 40s and 50s. But there were other bookslike A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, for example, and Death of Intruder by Nedra Tyre—that very nearly made the cut.

“I see [Women Crime Writers] as the beginning of a conversation,” Weinman said. “I want people to seek out not just books by these authors but [also] other women writers, or other underrepresented genre writers, and just to broaden their own reading horizons. Because [if] you become a better reader, you become a better person. That’s certainly my feeling in life.”

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