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Onyx reviews: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, ed. by Sarah Weinman

There is a long tradition of women authors in the crime field. Writers like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh were early trendsetters, and there have been many since, although until recently they have been primarily British. In the last two decades, there has been an upswing in gritty, no-holds-barred novels written by women. Chelsea Cain's female serial killer rivals Hannibal Lecter, and one of the most talked-about crime novels of the past two years is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a book in which both men and women behave reprehensibly. Still, for some reason, there is a faction of readers who seem unwilling to consider female authors. When it came time to pick a pseudonym, JK Rowling implicitly acknowledged this issue by selecting a masculine name.

A few of the fourteen authors in this collection may be familiar. Certainly, the name Shirley Jackson, author of "The Lottery," stands out, along with Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Margaret Millar might be less familiar—even her husband, who wrote as Ross Macdonald, isn't a household name any more. Most of the remaining writers will be unfamiliar to most, though the quality of the work in this book is uniformly high. The authors primarily plied their trade from the post-war era through the 1970s. Many were published in the pulp magazines of the day, and more than a few won awards.

How should these stories be classified? The cover blurb calls them tales of "domestic suspense," and that's probably as good a handle as any. Mostly these aren't tales of female Sam Spades or Lew Archers but rather stories in which "ordinary" women become enmeshed in conflicts, some of their own making, some thrust upon them. One story, "The Splintered Monday" by Charlotte Armstrong, features a Miss Marple-style elderly amateur detective whose nosiness gets her to the bottom of an unsuspected crime. The narrators (first person and otherwise) are primarily but not exclusively female. The male characters aren't stupid, but are in general oblivious to the plights of the women in their lives.

Many of them could be called crime stories, but the solution of a mystery is not the primary focus of most. Some, like Highsmith's "The Heroine," detail the build-up to a crime. In Shirley Jackson's "Louisa, Please Come Home," the protagonist's primary sin is to seek an independent life, with surprising and ironic results. Interestingly, Weinman chose to arrange the stories by the ages of the central characters, from youngest to oldest. These may be wives and daughters (or nieces, sisters, best friends, grandmothers), but they are, first and foremost, women, with all the imperfections, desires and hopes of real people, trying to comply with the social expectations of these descriptors while struggling against them.

Some of the female protagonists are mentally disturbed or deluded, either through heredity or environment. Many feel trapped, either within their social settings or by the constraints of contemporary culture. Some are triumphant, but not all. A few of the stories revel in ambiguity and the actions of some of the women was probably considered subversive at the time these stories were written. In the 21st century, readers are probably less shocked at the notion that a woman might decide to contemplate and commit murder (or other serious crimes) in circumstances other than the heat of the moment.

Weinman had ample material to choose from—the book could probably have been twice as long if she could have included other overlooked writers of the era, or could have featured different but equally excellent works from the selected authors—so it's no surprise that there isn't a clunker among them. Readers will be well served by seeing this book as an introduction to a lost generation of authors and then going out in search of their other works.

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