Ah, the Golden Age of American detective fiction: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain; murky clubs, noirish alleys, thuggish gamblers. Love them, and yet, isn’t there someone missing? We know all the men but what about the women writers of the time? Most have dropped from sight. As a well-read librarian of my acquaintance said recently, “I didn’t know there were any major women mystery writers back then.”
There were for sure, but I am not surprised that while Chandler & Co are still household words in the mystery community, Dorothy Hughes, Helen Eustis, Margaret Millar and the like are strictly specialist fare. Consider my own experience some thirty years after their heyday. My first novel, The Big Payoff, was an Edgar nominee and went into a second printing. But when my agent approached the big paperback mystery house of the day, the answer was negative. And why? Because they already had their female mystery author in Amanda Cross. One to a customer, apparently!
Things must have been even harder back in the day, and so a lot of fine work, even work that resulted in famous films like Vera Caspary’s Laura, was neglected and good authors subtly squeezed out of the mystery canon. Fortunately, thanks to the enterprise of editor Sarah Weinman, who, as she wrote, recently realized “...that the most compelling and creative American crime fiction was being written and published by women,” and decided to look into the women who preceded the best sellers of today (and paved the way for a great many more of us).
The result is the two volumes of Women Crime Writers, Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s & 50’s, (The Library of America). I’ve acquired the first and have the second volume on order. As my ninth graders used to say, I can recommend them to anyone.
The 1940’s work overlaps the later Chandler novels and at least one of them, Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is set in California. The novels have dodgy characters, blackmail, a lonely detective, even a serial killer – a lineup not too different from their male counterparts, but I’m happy to report also some differences. We’ve only been getting one side of the story, folks.
The settings, for one thing, are varied. There’s a posh women’s college, the sort of closed academic world destined to be utilized by P.D. James and reach its commercial apotheosis in J. K. Rowling's Hogwarts. There is a smart-talking amateur detective right out of Chandler but, wait, she’s not the glamor girl on campus, it’s her chunky friend in the flannel shirt.
Some other familiar characters appear in Hughes’ In a Lonely Place and for a while it looks as if we’re getting that familiar dichotomy of the nice domestic wife and the free-living theatrical type. It perhaps won’t spoil the plot to reveal that these two women turn out to be the best of friends.
Both Laura and The Blank Wall have complicated women who are not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Caspary’s Laura has tricky plotting, giving the heroine not only her very own Svengali, a man almost overly eager to help the police, as well as a portrait lovely enough to snare the heart of a straight-laced inspector. If you are weary of conventional femme fatales, this one’s for you.
The protagonist of The Blank Wall ( filmed most recently with Tilda Swindon) is probably in the prototypically female position: head of a wartime household. With her husband in the service, Lucia Holley has her teenaged son and daughter to worry about, as well as her elderly father. Financially comfortable, seemingly content with a domestic role, her worries are focused on her far-away husband and on teenage rebellion before her daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend winds up dead in their boat house. A refusal to call the police sets Lucia on a slide from domestic security to unsavory company.
These are four writers who deserve to be remembered and more, republished, and I am happy to conclude with the information that Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man, another really bold and imaginative novel, is available in paper from the New York Review of Books.