26 August 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (ed. Sarah Weinman)

(I know: that cover! That title! How perfect.)

Editor Sarah Weinman embarked on Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives as a response to "the current crop of crime writers who excite and inspire me the most"--women like Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Laura Lippman (fun fact: I once sold a Lippman novel to Kyra Sedgwick! Mr. Bacon was also present.) Many of these authors work in what's known as "domestic suspense," crime fiction that takes place in ordinary spaces and lives, splitting the difference between hard-boiled and cozy--and very often centering on the ambitions and frustrations of women.

Yet while these modern authors sell like lovely bloodthirsty hotcakes, their predecessors--women writers working at mid-century who invented domestic suspense--have been largely forgotten. Weinman sets out to right this wrong, selecting fourteen stories by as many authors, written between the 1940s and mid-1970s. I'd only heard of Patricia Highsmith, whose inclusion here is surprising, as she made a name for herself writing about men, and (of course) Shirley Jackson, whose "Louisa, Please Come Home" deserves to be read as much as "The Lottery." Some of the others were critically acclaimed bestsellers in their day, such as Vera Caspary--"Sugar and Spice" is a skillful portrait of toxic friendship, though I wish it had a more ambiguous ending--and Edgar-winning Charlotte Armstrong. The latter's "The Splintered Monday" contains my favorite line in the collection: "Bobby [got] into his chair in a young way that was far more difficult a physical feat than simply sitting down." I loved Elizabeth Saxby Holding's "The Stranger in the Car," where all the women know more than they let on, and the male protagonist knows far less than he thinks he does, and Miriam Allen Deford's "Mortmain" is deliciously malicious and unexpected.

Weinman's introduction is a bit simplistic in its history for me, mostly adhering to the tired narrative that feminism was an invention of the 1960s, and twice her notes on the individual stories have small but crucial errors in her plot summaries. Despite these small quibbles, her analysis of the subgenre is excellent, and she can certainly sling a sentence herself, as here: "The bombast of global catastrophe, the knight-errant detective's overweening nobility, of the gaping maw of total self-annihilation has no place in these stories." In lifting these writers from obscurity, she's done a great service to mystery readers, and to the writers themselves.

(FTC disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Penguin, in exchange for an honest review.)

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