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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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