Mid-Twentieth Century Women Crime Writers

Recently, I came across two anthologies, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir edited by Megan Abbott (2007) and Troubled Wives, Twisted Daughters: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense edited by Sarah Weinman (2013).  I’ve been a fan of Abbott’s since reading Die a Little (2005), a harkening back to crime fiction from the mid-twentieth century.  Abbot and others – Laura Lippman, Christa Faust, and Gillian Flynn, for example – have tipped their hats toward hard-boiled male writers whose works enjoyed a renaissance during the 1980s and 1990s, such as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. I remember picking up titles from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard celebrating these and other figures from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with Patricia Highsmith being the only woman I can recall being among them.  Abbott and  peers have addressed this imbalance, drawing attention to other more important inspirations, the mid-twentieth century women who like Highsmith produced psychological crime pulp that strayed well away from the drawing rooms, cozy themes, and genteel detectives of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, proving that women could play mean just like their male counterparts. Some even went for a different level of grit, domestic situations and anxieties related to traditional feminine roles.

Abbott and Weinman’s weren’t the only ones interested in these long-neglected names.  The Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatales and New York Review of Books lines have been releasing newly repackaged editions, and the Library of America has joined these renewal efforts as well.  I’ve digested a few during the Great COVID Pause. Kind of a grim genre for such a harrowing period, you might say?  Well, I gain much solace from twisted minds and existential themes.  I hope you will too.

Dorothy B. Hughes

I first read Dorothy B. Hughes’s Ride the Pink Horse (1946) years ago after having found it at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. The plot involves three men: (1) Sailor, a crook from Chicago; (2) Sen, a senator and Sailor’s former boss; and (3) Mac, a police officer on the hunt for both men after Sen apparently murders his wealthy wife.  The three characters meet in a New Mexican desert town during Fiesta, and much tension flows from their relationships, especially since Sailor and Mac come from the same Chicago neighborhood, although each has followed different life paths.  Mac’s certain that Sailor can help him to nail Sen. Character-driven crime fiction can’t get any better, I’d thought. Then last month, I re-encountered Hughes through her even greater novel, In a Lonely Place (1947). I’m still breathless from the experience.

Megan Abbott agrees with me, sparing no energy when praising Hughes’s story about a serial killer:

Reading Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place for the first time is like finding the long-lost final piece to an enormous puzzle. Within its Spanish bungalows, its eucalyptus-scented shadows, you feel as though you’ve discovered a delicious and dark secret, a tantalizing page-turner with sneakily subversive undercurrents. While only intermittently in print for much of the last half century, its influence on crime fiction is unsung yet unescapable.  From Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson to Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Harris, nearly every “serial killer” tale of the last seventy years bears its imprint – both in terms of its sleek, relentless style and its claustrophobic “mind of the serial killer” perspective.

Hughes is more than a match for Cain, Goodis, and company. Both Ride a Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place made it to the silver screen.  Hughes herself netted many awards, and I’m looking forward to reading The Blackbirder (1943) and her final effort, The Expendable Man (1963).  Several others by her are available through e-formats, but I’m an old-school print reader.

Vera Caspary

I can’t fathom why Caspary has all but vanished from our literary view until relatively recently. What an interesting life she led. At one point, after having earned $2,000 from Paramount for a 40-page script, she moved to Hollywood and joined the Communist Party. She never really took to it, however, but did manage in 1939 to visit Russia before returning home to attempt quitting that organization.  This boldness went into her novels, particularly Laura (1941), the murder story later transformed into the silver-screen legend starring Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb. To this day, Laura the film features prominently on “best of film noir” lists, even if many forget the original novel and the powerhouse storyteller behind it.

About that film: Caspary was not happy with changes director Otto Preminger instituted for the movie.  Preminger felt Laura without character, so to repair this he removed most of the character’s professional standing while altering her pragmatic nature.  Of course, Caspary had modeled Laura after herself which partially explains her ire. I was amazed to learn that Caspary hated writing mysteries, so if she were going to write one, she’d do so differently, outside the usual formula. Michelle Dean of The New Yorker lays out Caspary’s process for seeking inspiration and for creating Laura’s mentor, the arrogant and unlikable Waldo Lydecker:

But there is another source for the character. The writing of “Laura” was a kind of accident, done for money. Caspary did not like murder mysteries herself, and she saw in them a structural flaw. “The murderer, the most interesting character,” she wrote, “has always to be on the periphery of action lest he give away the secret that can be revealed only in the final pages.” If she was going to write one, she decided she needed to do it differently.

A friend suggested she read Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” and try out his manner of using the voices of several characters to weave the story. It worked, not least because she found inspiration for Lydecker’s type in Collins’s villainous, obese Count Fosco. “Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries—a good friend to a man and to those about him, as often as it is his enemy,” Fosco declares in that book.

Other works by Caspary have begun resurfacing, most notably Bedelia (1945).  May they all rise to Parnassian heights.

Margaret Millar

Margaret Millar, born Margaret Ellis Sturm in 1915, first met her husband Kenneth, better known to the world as Ross MacDonald, at the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate where they both were members of the debate team but remained acquaintances only. They’d reconnect while Margaret was at the University of Toronto, and years later after they were married, Kenneth quipped that he adopted a writing alias to avoid being eclipsed by his wife.

While reading Millar’s Beast in View (1955), I wondered if she’d contributed any screenwriting for Alfred Hitchcock, because her character-driven, psychological style resonate similarly. Apparently not, since we know nothing about which screenplays she might have worked on or completed while under contract with Warner Brothers just after World War II. I defy any reader to not think either of Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) or Hitchcock’s film of the same name (1960) while reading Beast in View, for which Millar won the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Equally loaded with plot twists is A Stranger in My Grave (1960). Not only do readers encounter crime and suspense, but a deep analysis of the family dynamics that have led to the central character’s predicament. Millar peels back not only illusions of household and familial bliss, but of the Golden State as well. How happy her publishers and public were that Millar moved beyond copywriting for her husband and into the literary limelight herself.

Kathleen Sharp describes Millar’s protagonists as “smart, difficult, and sometimes threatening. They were women who shared a quietly desperate view of a hard-boiled world,” quite counter to the manly men or passive women featured in many mysteries and crime novels of that period. Desperate and stifled within traditional feminine roles, her characters were strong enough to challenge the male-dominated orthodoxy of our society, and thus Millar became a foundational author of what’s now called the domestic thriller, her themes a commentary on the frustration not only of her own situation, but the situation of women everywhere.

Patricia Highsmith

Quoted by Edward Helmore for an article in The Guardian about Patricia Highsmith’s diaries, biographer Andrew Wilson notes:

[Highsmith] had an obsession about detailing absolutely everything in her life, very much like Sylvia Plath. And she drew on [her] diaries for her novels, which explore the notion of obsession, guilt and murder, and reject rationality and logic for the darker elements of human personality.

Her diaries also reveal a deep interest in existentialists, Albert Camus and others according to Wilson, who goes on to describe Highsmith as a “lesbian who hated women, totally politically incorrect in many ways, and certainly not a poster girl for the feminist movement.” To make sure we really get it, he adds, “She could be a monstrous, violent and quite unpleasant woman. She hated black people, she hated Jews, and she hated women.” Her diaries and other individuals have verified all these attributes.

Nonetheless, Highsmith’s easily the most legendary writer among this group, and for good reason.  The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) spawned a series containing five novels. Back when I read these books, I encountered a critic who dinged Highsmith for abandoning the gay agenda she’d introduced in the first novel, given that Highsmith herself was a lesbian.  At the beginning of the second novel, we find that Ripley has married a woman, settled into the south of France, and is embarking in episodes that center around his complete amorality.  Highsmith crafted the ultimate conman, a criminal psychopath doggedly fixated toward his own ends. Gay? Bisexual? Pansexual?  Highsmith could have kept to this angle, but the point was Ripley is a flat-out opportunist, regardless of sexuality, and perhaps she felt this more interested her readers? Highsmith employed her understanding of this mindset through twenty-two novels.  I’ve not read them all, but I’m deeply satisfied with what I’ve experienced so far.

Evelyn Piper

Merriam Modell published several short stories that appeared in The New Yorker, and two novels, all examining women and the angst surrounding domestic situations. Then under the pseudonym Evelyn Piper, she began publishing pulp thrillers that gained her the title Queen of Domestic Suspense.  Her first novel as Evelyn Piper, The Innocent (1949), was a finalist for the Edgar Award, but she’s most famous for Bunny Lake Is Missing (1957). Otto Preminger directed the 1965 film starring Carol Lynley and Laurence Olivier with Noel Coward playing the creepiest landlord imaginable. While retaining the central plot, Preminger instilled massive changes to character motivations, story location, even radically altering how the resolution plays out.  I highly recommend both the novel and film. Students should never think they’re taking shortcuts by watching the film only. Their instructors will have no trouble knowing.

Gypsy Rose Lee

Yes, that Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous strip-tease artist, born Rose Louise Hovick, who wrote two mystery novels, The G-String Murders (1941) and Mother Finds a Body (1942). And why not? Lee was known as much for her wit as she was for her dancing, and she possessed enormous talent for publicity. Today, fans would consider her novels media tie-ins that both supported her burlesque endeavors while introducing curious new fans into the fold.  After reading The G-String Murders, I’m left with no doubt that Lee was an astute observer that well understood the ways and language of her professional environment.

Not everyone felt so positively about her efforts, however.  In her afterword for the Femmes Fatales edition of The G-String Murders, Rachel Shteir discusses how Lee received unfair treatment from critics.  The New York Times panned the novel, even if others had dubbed Lee a “strip-tease intellectual.” Shteir sums the situation up as follows: “From the beginning, journalists cast doubt on whether Gypsy had actually written the book or not. Some of the early press alluded to the idea that a stripper, even an intellectual one, could not possibly have written anything.”

Critics have theorized that the popular writer Craig Rice (born Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) ghostwrote Lee’s novels, but I’m with those who disagree.  Surely, Lee corresponded with Rice, the more experienced scribe, and I’m willing to allow for Rice perhaps offering feedback, and suggestions for edits much like Truman Capote provided for Harper Lee, or Harper Lee for Truman Capote, or any number of reciprocal writing relationships that come to mind.  Lee deserves full authorial credit. To assume otherwise was knee-jerk sexism and classism on the part of early critics.

 Other women were writing such stories, and more of their works keep coming back into print. I’ve barely dented the stack here, but give me time . . .