The Criminal Kind: Noir Women

A uniformly excellent anthology of “domestic noir” with no weak links.

May 30, 2014

    The Criminal Kind: Noir Women

    Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman. Penguin Books. 384 pages.

    TO SAY IT IS long overdue is a criminal understatement — Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense Paperback is simply one of the most significant anthologies of crime fiction, ever. Highlighting a vital lineage of writers who have largely been marginalized, trivialized as “cozy,” or just plain forgotten, editor Sarah Weinman reclaims an important yet neglected arena of noir fiction that she designates as “domestic suspense.” As the name suggests, these stories take place within the confines of the home, and while they don’t use the stereotypical noir setting of smoky bars and foggy back alleys, they lack none of noir’s darker shades. The stories in this anthology are as bleak, grim, and nasty as anything written by these women’s more celebrated male contemporaries — and, in many cases, these stories are all the more disturbing for their recognizably residential settings. Without the generic hallmarks to separate reality from fantasy — tough guys in fedoras, chain-smoking dames, and fast-spewing gats — noir takes on a whole new realm of disturbing possibility, and the writers of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives pack plenty of nightmares into their pages.

    Among the 14 authors represented, none is more celebrated — or less forgotten — than Patricia Highsmith. The piece chosen for this anthology, however, is among her most atypical. Known for her keen renderings of male psychos (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), “The Heroine” finds Highsmith exploring the warped mind of a young governess eager to prove her trustworthiness to her employers — and to prove to herself that she didn’t inherit her mother’s mental illness. The story won an O. Henry Prize for Best First Published Story in 1946, and even at this early stage in her career Highsmith exhibits an unparalleled insight into insanity. This tale of ordinary madness is driven by a desire for white-picket-fence normality. The most banal details — afternoon snacks, a child’s scratch — take on supreme importance. As the title indicates, this governess doesn’t see herself as a victim of confining gender roles — and she’s willing to kill in order to fulfill what she sees as her duty.

    Highsmith isn’t the only writer concerned with the illusory and impossible dream of the conventional American home. In “A Nice Place to Stay” by Nedra Tyre, a single woman struggles to make ends meet, taking abusive, low-paying jobs when she is lucky enough to find them, and stealing when she isn’t. Carrying her through adversity is her dream of “a nice place to stay” — where she finds it is certainly surprising, but the lengths to which she goes to hold on to it is downright chilling. A stunning example of class-conscious noir, Tyre’s tale is among the most outstanding of Weinman’s rediscoveries. On the other hand, Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home” is about a young girl who runs away from the suffocation of her family, starts a new life, and discovers all too late that going home isn’t as easy as it seems. Renowned for her canonical short story “The Lottery” and gothic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s spectral dread is present throughout “Louisa.” Read in this context, it is less of a mystery than it is a ghost story about the haunting, lingering presence of human loss.

    Though the anthology’s emphasis is on female writers, the stories are not exclusively focused on female protagonists. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Stranger in the Car” is about a husband fighting to keep his family together while his wife is gravely ill in the hospital. When his daughter returns home intoxicated, with a black eye and no recollection of the night before except for a mysterious man, Carrol Charleroy suspects a blackmail scheme in motion. The plot is a reversal of Holding’s most famous novel, The Blank Wall (filmed twice, by Max Ophüls as The Reckless Moment in 1949 and by Scott McGehee and David Siegel as The Deep End in 2001), in which a mother is caught up in an extortion plot concerning her daughter. Holding’s interchanging of gender roles — with the husband being the protector of the domestic sphere and the convalescent wife making a surprise cameo as a bedbound detective — is surprisingly modern, anticipating the revisionist noir novels of Megan Abbott.

    Rounding out Weinman’s ensemble are celebrated names like Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Margaret Millar and In a Lonely Place author Dorothy B. Hughes, as well as unjust obscurities like Joyce Harrington and Celia Fremlin (who both offer nasty tales of femme fatalerevenge). From first page to last, it’s a uniformly excellent anthology with no weak links. Though the stories all share in common “the home” as a unifying element, the diversity of approaches, themes, characters, and motivations suggest that Weinman’s anthology is only the first word on the subject, and far from the last.


    Cullen Gallagher regularly reviews noir novels and anthologies for LARB.


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