Dormant Superheroines

By Steph ChaOctober 10, 2015

Dormant Superheroines

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I got looped into a Twitter conversation about the lack of young people at Bouchercon, the biggest annual conference for mystery writers and fans. It was a conversation about the lack of new blood in the genre, the continuous underrepresentation of the under-40 crowd. But as this chain of tweets lengthened, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person in it who wasn’t male (and, while we’re at it, white — let’s face it, I’ve never felt like the token young person). At last year’s Bouchercon, I ended up being the only woman on my panel and had the pleasure of talking to an audience member who thought the only possible male equivalent to a femme fatale was a gigolo.

Crime fiction has always struck me as a male-dominated field. In fact, one of the reasons I started writing it was to buck up against what I saw as a tradition that was misogynist in its very roots. But a new collection of vintage suspense novels has me reevaluating my views — at least of the genre’s early days.

Women Crime Writers is a two-volume, eight-book omnibus of suspense novels written by women in the 1940s and ’50s, the same moody post-war decades that gave us some of our most beloved classics of film noir and American detective fiction. This collection, edited by Sarah Weinman and published by the Library of America, offers a different view of that era’s crime writers. It reads like an alternate canon, one that, if adopted, might have shaped the genre in unknowable ways.

Weinman is the ideal curator for this project: she’s one of our foremost authorities on all things crime, a writer of reviews, articles, and fiction, as well as the news editor for Publishers Marketplace. (She is also the first person who ever mentioned me as a writer on the Internet, back in 2011 when my first book sold, the very earliest days of my self-googling career. We have since become friends.) Before Women Crime Writers, she edited the anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which LARB praised as “simply one of the most significant anthologies of crime fiction, ever.” She also maintains a great newsletter called, appropriately enough, The Crime Lady.

I quizzed Weinman about Women Crime Writers over email. We’ll also be talking, along with fellow women crime writers Elizabeth Little and Christa Faust, at Vroman’s in Pasadena on October 12, at 7 p.m.


STEPH CHA: So how did this collection come about?

SARAH WEINMAN: Two years ago I published an anthology of domestic suspense fiction from the 1940s through the 1970s called Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which itself grew out of an essay I wrote for Tin House that first put to paper my thoughts about what I saw as an overlooked, underappreciated, needlessly neglected group of female crime writers that didn’t quite do hardboiled, didn’t quite do English village mystery “cozy,” but were operating on a different track: one that emphasized character, psychology, and terror lurking closest to home. The situations tended to involve the domestic: conflicts among husbands and wives, parents and children, unmarrieds and marrieds, and the like.

Just before Troubled Daughters’s pub date — so around August 2013 — a mutual acquaintance put Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America, in touch with me, and we had a meeting to talk about the anthology. It went well, and then there were other meetings, now involving Editor-in-chief Geoffrey O’Brien, and by the beginning of 2014 I was under contract to edit what became the 2-volume Women Crime Writers set. Interestingly that was not the original plan: the volumes were supposed to come out one at a time. But at some point while we were finalizing the book list Max asked, “What do you think if we publish them together as a set?” At first I laughed a bit thinking, “Hmm, that compresses some of the deadlines!” but it was pretty clear to me the 1940s–’50s volumes ought to be published that way, because it would be more of an event. So far that seems to be bearing out. 

Were there any books you knew had to be included? How many slots were up for grabs, and how on earth did you go about filling them? Did you do a wide search? Did you read some terrible books?

Early on it was obvious that the set had to include Laura by Vera Caspary; In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes; The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; a Charlotte Armstrong (we decided on Mischief fairly quickly); a Margaret Millar (same with Beast in View, though I read a couple of her other books published in the 1950s to be sure). There was a point early on when it seemed we might do five books in the 1950s volumes, since a number of the books are quite slender — in the Library of America edition, Mischief runs to 141 pages, Beast in View maybe at 160 — but that idea didn’t last long, and it was to be four books a volume. 

So for the 1940s volume that really left one slot open. O’Brien put me on to The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, which I knew of, but hadn’t yet read. Once I did I agreed it should be in there because (a) it’s a funny campus novel, (b) it’s very dark, and driven by a kind of subtle rage, and (c) it’s a formative novel in the annals of psychological thrillers, not just because of the way it ends, but because of the whole atmosphere.

For the 1950s I recall Dolores Hitchens being bandied about early, but it was hard to get a hold of a copy of Fool’s Gold. (First editions are expensive and scarce.) I was quite bowled over by it, the same way I had been by a slightly later book of hers, Sleep with Slander, but as that was published in 1960 it wasn’t eligible. Hitchens was workmanlike in the best way: she knew her craft in and out and told damn good stories.

Believe it or not the Highsmith was a late addition; we read a number of other books by authors, most notably Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Nedra Tyre, authors with stories in Troubled Daughters and both excellent in their own right. But since The Talented Mr. Ripley had been included in the original Library of America crime fiction omnibus published in 1997, it lent a nice continuity from one set to the other. Getting to The Blunderer as our choice was a little bit complicated, but in hindsight it is also a very good choice, because it’s a fine novel in its own right and also has all of the seeds for Ripley and Highsmith’s subsequent work.

Terrible novels? Well … I will say I’m not such a fan of Highsmith’s A Game for the Living, which I never bothered to finish. (Apparently no one, not including Highsmith herself, her agent, and her first publisher, the legendary Joan Kahn, thought much of that book.) It’s also the one that Dorothy B. Hughes refused to blurb because she thought it racist and wasn’t much of a Highsmith fan to begin with …

Do you have a favorite novel in this collection? What do you love about it?

In a Lonely Place is arguably my favorite crime novel ever, the one I keep coming back to marvel at its structure and mood and how Hughes contrasts this highly unreliable psychopathic narrator who is ultimately clued out to what is really going on around him. It’s so teachable. And it’s still so fresh.

The American crime fiction tradition has always struck me as exceedingly male, but here we have eight women who were writing alongside Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Were they anomalous at the time? How were they received by their contemporaries?

That’s the thing: they were not anomalous! They were held up among the best of the best at what they were doing, and in some cases (like Hughes) they were critics, too. Their novels were published in hardcover, not just by mystery-only houses but some by more mainstream places. They were reviewed regularly by The New York Times (Anthony Boucher, the “Criminals at Large” columnist and general bon vivant of mystery fiction, gave regular praise; but sometimes there would be daily review coverage by people like Orville Prescott), the other big newspapers of the day, The New Republic, Harper’s, even The New Yorker had a mystery column on occasion. These writers won or were nominated for Edgars. They sold well, especially to libraries.

But somehow, over the last three decades or so, the men have dominated the cultural conversation around crime fiction. Some of it boils down to biographers: Chandler had his Frank McShane, Hammett had Richard Layman, but who is Dorothy B. Hughes’s biographer? Who is Vera Caspary’s? Then there was the dawn of Black Lizard in the 1980s, reviving careers of people like Jim Thompson and David Goodis and publishing hardly any women. When Black Lizard began publishing, people like Hughes, Millar, and Armstrong were still in print (and Millar and Hughes still alive), but by the time the imprint was sold to Random House, the women had fallen out of the conversation completely. At least until now.

A lot of it is timing, changing tastes and attitudes. Some of it is finding the right champion at the right time. In that respect I am thankful and lucky I got interested in chronicling this generation at the time that I did, when there was a greater interest in psychological suspense by women. 

This project feels very much like a feminist undertaking to me, but feminism is not an overt concern in most of these novels. I guess it’s too late to interview these authors about their thoughts, but how do you understand the way they approach gender? And what do you see as their place in the story of women in publishing? (As a side note, I love this line from The Blank Wall: “They would give her love, protection, even a sort of homage, but in return for that she must be what they wanted and needed her to be.” I feel like that line could fit in a Ferrante novel.)

That is such a great line. Or another, from Mischief, which I will paraphrase, about the wife rediscovering inner strengths that she thought had atrophied after childhood, from marriage and children, but which lay dormant all along. May we all be secret superheroines, right?

I certainly view it as a feminist undertaking, but I think because of the generation they were part of, most of these crime novelists had really conflicted, even ambivalent, feelings about feminism. Dorothy B. Hughes actively disdained it and was almost angry at the formation of Sisters in Crime in 1986, not understanding why it needed to exist. (If anything, it needs to exist more than ever.) Highsmith viewed feminism as this alien thing; I think it came too late to help her, and by then a lot of her more toxic views had begun to harden. I think the only one who made public gestures of support toward second-wave feminism was Vera Caspary. Her 1979 autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, which is just wonderful, indicates how glad she was to be part of the “century of the woman” and how, if she had been born later, she would have totally been a contemporary feminist. 

Ultimately, even and perhaps especially now, feminism is there for anyone, even those who might not think they have a use for it. 

I feel like ever since Gone Girl came out, we’ve all been having this ongoing — and often quite boring conversation about difficult female characters, one that’s predicated on this idea that women are somehow more tied to kindness and manners than men. One thing that’s clear to me from reading these novels is that women have always behaved badly, even on the page. Do you see these concerns as cyclical? Perennial? And more broadly, how do these novels reflect the decades in which they were written? And how do they endure?

Let's start with the last question. I do think the novels in Women Crime Novels both reflect the time in which they were written, because they deal, often frankly, with major concerns of the day. But they endure because many of those concerns — the particular roles of women and the ones they are desperately trying to break out of — are still with us today. Seventy-plus years on and a woman like Laura Hunt still feels dangerous because she works and enjoys sex and lives her life without shame. Seventy-plus years later and a woman like Lucia Holley still feels relevant, because she is part of a sandwich generation and does whatever it takes to protect her children. A guy like Dix Steele is still to be feared because he presents as normal, even thinks he has empathy and a capacity to love, but when the mask slips and we see what is underneath, oh wow, it gets the reader — but does not fool the women around him in the slightest. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just stop with the unlikable heroine thing, though? Who is 100 percent likable in real life, anyway? So why should the characters authors create be held to that ridiculous standard? Now, that said, characters have to behave badly for reasons that are logical in their universe and inspire the reader to go along for the ride. Otherwise they become as boring and stilted as the conversation we keep having. Which, in the end, comes back to fear. Humans are such fearful creatures. And mining that fear makes for great, great stories.


 Steph Cha’s latest thriller is Beware Beware.

LARB Contributor

Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hound.


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