05 June 2019
1. Pictures from a Prosecution. Back in 2017 the Library of Congress held an exhibit of unusual art: drawings by courtroom illustrators. Fascinating stuff including such sinister types as Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and (?) J.K. Rowling.
2. Man, that's succubustic. I have mentioned Lowering the Bar before. A wonderful website about all that is ridiculous in the world of law. This entry concerns a California attorney who used (invented, really) the word "succubustic' to describe the behavior of a female judge who refused to grant him the attorney's fees he wanted. (Apparently the lawyer worked very hard on the case, clocking 25 hours in a single day, for instance.) He also referred to the "defendant's pseudohermaphroditic misconduct." Stylish.
3. Write like a girl. Useful for all of us boy author types: Women Share the Biggest Mistakes Male Authors Make with Female Characters. Here's one from jennytrout: "We have never, ever looked in a mirror and silently described our nude bodies to ourselves, especially the size/shape/weight/resemblance to fruit, etc. of our breasts."
4. Write like a cop. From Robin Burcell, Top Ten Stupid Cop Mistakes (in Fiction). "Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid..."
5. "Dieoramas." Article from Topic Magazine about Abigail Goldman, who is an investigator for the Public Defender's office in my county. Her hobby is making tiny 3-D "reproductions" of entirely fictional murder scenes. Creepy...
21 September 2017
by Janice Law
by Janice Law
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.
29 December 2013
My favorite fiction in the crime genre is detective stories. Before I retired I didn’t read the introductions to anthologies because I felt the summaries of the stories would interfere with my enjoyment. Once I retired and began close reading, I discovered the introductions can be very informative, especially in putting the stories in historical context.
I bought the anthology The Dead Witness because of the description above the title: “A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Detective Stories.” I wondered if the connoisseur had included any surprises, if, in fact, he met his aim “to represent the vigor and charm of the Victorian detective story at its best.” Based on the three stories I read for this post, he has done a good job. I chose the stories because the connoisseur claims they were firsts.
"The Secret Cell" by William E. Burton (1804-1860) "has never been reprinted prior to its first appearance in 1837." It predates Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," but doesn’t replace Poe as the father of the detective story because it “doesn't challenge Poe's preeminence."
When her daughter Mary disappears, Mrs. Lobenstein, the unnamed narrator’s former laundress, asks him to find her. He hires a policeman friend, who later in life became “the head of the private police in London,” to find Mary. Their investigation reveals she has been kidnapped. Their search leads them to a “secret cell” on the grounds of a Franciscan Monastery. With the help of more policemen, they storm the fortress to rescue her.
No way could this story be considered as the template for the detective story. It was published only once probably because it is so badly written. Reading the the first person narrator felt like listening to a garrulous old man.
An example of the prose style: Mrs. Lobenstein’s husband “had scarcely embraced his family ere he was driven off, post-haste, to the other world....” He died.
The detective story would have been stillborn if Burton had been its father.
"The Dead Witness; or, The Bush Waterhole" by W. W. (Mary Fortune 1833-1910), published in 1866 in the Australian Journal is "the first known detective story written by a woman." She published poems and stories using male pen names. When she began writing a series "The Detective's Album" an editor changed Waif Wander to the “genderless W. W.”
Australian police detective Brooke is sent to a small town to find a young artist named Edward Willis who has gone missing for several days. Two clues, a faulty photographic plate and a missing sheep dog, lead him to a waterhole where blood was found on the ground. While he and the shepherd Dick watch the sheep drink, a corpse rises to the surface--the dead witness. A good story, though the long, well done descriptions of the scenery seem, at times, to be padding. I downloaded three of Fortune’s novels that are in the public domain from University of Adelaide Library.
“An Intangible Clue" by American Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) features her female detective Violet Strange. Green was the first woman to write “a full-fledged detective novel”, (The Leavenworth Case published in 1878) and supposedly influenced Agatha Christie.
The editor disagrees with some critics that The Dead Letter by Seeley Regester (pen name of Metta Victoria Fuller Victor) was the first “book-length detective story by a woman.” He argues that it is not a true detective story because the detective uses the psychic visions of his daughter to solve cases, and Regester was "an inferior writer who depended upon coincidence, exhibited little wit, and had a poor sense of pacing."
Violet Strange, a socialite good at solving crimes, works part time for a private detective firm but doesn't want to get her hands dirty solving "low-down crime." To persuade her to help the police with the case of an old woman who was brutally murdered in her home, her boss claims that a box with her name on it was found in the house. She realizes that he in fact wrote her name on the box. At the crime scene, pretending to be a curious, dainty woman as a policeman leads her about the house, she immediately identifies the clues that lead to the apprehension of the murderer.
I downloaded some of the Violate Strange stories from the Gutenberg Project and included them in my to-read file.
Women have come a long way. Today, no editor or publisher would dare suggest a woman use a male or genderless pen name to get published, would he?
I hope you all had a