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For most of the 20th century, crime fiction in the United States appeared to be almost wholly dominated by male authors. When women like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky began to produce fiction around 1980 with tough female protagonists who were far from the British village cosy model, they seemed almost to come from nowhere. Sarah Weinman wondered if indeed this was the case. The results of her investigations became the substance of this collection of short stories by fourteen women who were publishing from the late 1940s into the early 80s. Some of these are familiar names - Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Celia Fremlin, Vera Caspary - and some familiar largely only to scholars in the field. All save one (Celia Fremlin) are American and just one (Dorothy Salisbury Davis) is still alive.
They were publishing their short stories frequently in monthly specialist magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (EQMM) and The Saint and occasionally in the slick women's magazines like Harper's Bazaar, and Ladies' Home Journal. They often were honoured with best short story Edgars. Nevertheless, consciousness of their work as contributing to a definable sub-genre, domestic suspense, has largely been absent. With the publication of Sarah Weinman's fascinating collection, there is no longer any excuse for ignoring them.
Weinman, perhaps wisely, does not attempt a detailed definition of domestic suspense, except to note that it is concerned with women in their homes or private lives and focussed on the constraints and limitations of their situation as women. But reading these stories one after the other reveals certain themes that connect them to one another and that also explain to some degree why they have lapsed into oblivion, regardless of their merit. At a moment when the question of women's "having it all" (whatever that may mean) continues to obsess popular discourse, few of us care to be reminded of a period when women had very little indeed.
Domestic suspense operates on very different assumptions from the dominant American crime fiction mode of the same period - noir. The lone American male taking on corruption, even evil itself, could hardly be further from the brooding, inward-turned females of these stories. The space between male and female oriented fiction would not narrow until the women characters could step foot on the mean streets themselves in the persons of Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, and VI Warshawski. But what these two traditions do share is Kipling's conviction that the female of the species is more deadly than the male, all the more so as the female is not permitted a straightforward outburst of retributive violence but must plot and scheme to achieve redress.
The female characters at the centre of most of these tales are defined and define themselves almost exclusively in relation to a particular man - husband, father, lover - who has failed to come up to the mark, often because he was unaware that he had any obligation to hold up his end in the relationship. By and large, they do not seek support from their sisters; in fact, a large number of these tales turn on the competition between women for a man. The women who are driven to crime are frequently motivated by frustration - they have failed to achieve full womanhood by failing to marry or failing to reproduce and in their view at least, they remain incomplete as a consequence. In general, these women find it impossible to imagine an independent existence for themselves - sometimes for practical reasons as they lack any means of financial support - but more profoundly because they cannot see any life for themselves that does not include a significant male as anything but a partial, shrivelled existence.
To what degree the authors of these stories, which, incidentally, range from a few pages to novella length, shared their characters' limited view of possibility is difficult to state. Certainly there were commercial considerations at work - the editors of the women's glossy monthlies were after stories that would intrigue their readers but not challenge them to question the underlying assumptions of the advertising that was bread and butter for the slicks. Though often surprisingly open to women's fiction, the editors of EQMM and similar publications were all male and perhaps more comfortable with stories that reflected the gender values of noir fiction.
So it is not easy to account for the undeniable strain of womanly self-hatred that runs through these stories and that makes it hard to read this collection from cover to cover without taking a break. The women who turn to murder in their desperation or despair are indeed both troubled and twisted, but they are never heroic, merely sad, horrifying, or doomed. Even the one tale that reflects something of the feminist wave of the 1970s, Joyce Harrington's extraordinary and powerful "The Purple Shroud," pulls off into a more conventional direction in its very last line.
Nevertheless, this is a collection that deserves to be read and Sarah Weinman deserves our thanks for labouring so hard and so well to bring it together. Her intelligent and knowledgeable introduction provides the context necessary to view this body of work in its historic setting. If the world these stories reflect is not a place most modern women would care to live, it is certainly one that deserves our attention. It is also one that we forget at our peril.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2013
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