"The terror is lurking either in the home, or just outside of it": How women writers redefined postwar noir

Salon talks to the editor of "Women Crime Writers" about how they stripped the suspense genre of sentimentality

Published September 19, 2015 8:30PM (EDT)

  (Twentieth Century Fox)
(Twentieth Century Fox)

A new anthology from the Library of America may make us rethink the history of American crime fiction. “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and '50s” collects novels mostly by people you’ve never heard of but will want to know more about after you’ve completed its two volumes.

But film fans will recognize some of the collection: One of the authors is noir existentialist Patricia Highsmith – who wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The Price of Salt,” which will be released this fall as “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The ‘40s volume opens with “Laura,” the short Vera Caspary novel that inspired the classic 1944 Otto Preminger film starring Gene Tierney. The same volume includes Dorothy B. Hughes’ “In a Lonely Place,” which Nicholas Ray adapted as a film noir, now sometimes overlooked, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

Anthology editor Sarah Weinman is a longtime authority on crime and hardboiled fiction, and the editor of “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense,” from 2013.

We spoke to Weinman from her home in New York about the collection, how gender does and doesn’t shape literary expression, and the larger landscape of midcentury crime fiction. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

With this project, you’re looking at two decades of crime and suspense writing. Give us a sense of what was happening during that period and how the women were working in a counter tradition to some extent. Is there a difference set of tendencies that women writers were operating in in the '40s and '50s, compared to the male writers whose work we tend to know better?

What I can say is that, for the group of women selected for “Women Crime Writers,” if there’s a commonality to their writing, then it has to do with either looking societies very square in the face — like an almost unsentimental approach — which contrasts with that of their male counterparts. You look at Raymond Chandler’s writing, from “The Big Sleep” onwards there’s this real, noble sensibility, almost romanticism at work. And to some degree, you also see a dissipated approach to that in Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury.”

I find that as I’m talking about “Women Crime Writers,” I’m really comparing and contrasting Spillane and “I, the Jury,” because it was published in ’47 and really hit it big the following year, in ’48, when it came out in paperback. That was the same year that Dorothy B. Hughes’ “In a Lonely Place” and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Blank Wall,” both of which were included in the ‘40s volume, were published. 

I feel like there’s an interesting tension in the way that Holding and Hughes approached similar ideas of suspense and sentimentality. “In a Lonely Place,” in particular, it’s a postwar narrative, set in Los Angeles, you really feel how people are struggling to adapt to the fact that these soldiers are coming back and everybody seems to be a little bit displaced. So, of course this creates a mood and siege for a character like Dix Steele to carry on his crimes and also, for Hughes to tell us a really ingenious and marvelous story of someone whom we know to be a psychopath. But, it’s the female characters in there who really end up having their due. So, you have that strain and with "The Blank Wall," and in subsequent books that appear in the ‘50s volume, it’s more of what I have been calling domestic suspense.

That’s very different than the noir style of the ‘50s that we associate with David Goodis and Jim Thompson, where there’s a kind of urban low-life quality. This is more likely to be about marriages, take place inside homes; it’s a counter-tradition to that sort of gutter, low-life tradition, isn’t it?

Yes, absolutely. The terror is lurking either in the home, or just outside of it, in the periphery. It makes everything seem unreliable… Even relationships that are supposed to be bedrocks, like marriage, like family, like friendship, or even in some degree, the workplace.

I look at something like “Mischief” by Charlotte Armstrong as a good example of this domestic suspense quality, because here’s this married couple coming to the big city, specifically New York City, and they’re there for celebration. They’re leaving their young child in the care of a stranger at a hotel, vouched by someone they don’t know all that well. But they said, “No, no, this young woman is my niece, I can totally vouch for her, she’s OK.” Of course, that turns out to be exactly the wrong decision.

So Armstrong really shows why those decisions play out. She was a big believer in the collective unconscious and how lots of people bear the guilt for a singular crime or what would be crime, as it unfolds. In both "Mischief" and a lot of her later novels, the suspense is because the reader knows something could happen and is scared by it. Thus, you really start turning the pages in a particularly rapid clip to see “Will this happen?” It’s no wonder that a lot of her stuff was later adapted for shows like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and why “Mischief” in particular was turned into a movie called “Don’t Bother to Knock.” It had all of those ingredients already for a great suspense movie. It is interesting to me how, of the eight books that we chose for “Women Crime Writers,” six of them became movies and two of them became TV suspense adaptations.

Give us a sense what made you choose these books. There are dozens, hundreds of crime novels by women in this period. What made these books the right ones?

Some of it had to do with which books best reflected the culture at the time. So, in the ‘40s, as I already mentioned, there was this first wartime quality and the changing attitudes toward women. I think you really see that in Vera Caspary’s "Laura," which was published in 1943.

Caspary herself was a fascinating figure. In her memoir she published, a few years before she died, she really talks about how she lived through some incredible changes in the 20th century, but she also would’ve totally signed up for the current reiteration of the feminist movement. She really was a feminist, and I think that comes through particularly in "Laura," in a character like Laura Hunt who is working, who is unapologetic in what she did and how she did. And that made her a very dangerous figure in the eyes of the men, either who didn’t know her and especially for those who did or claimed that they did. So, you really see that reflecting how things were changing during the war.

And after the war, you get Hughes and Holding that I talked about. But, you also get, in “The Horizontal Man,” a sense of what things were like on college campuses and a sort of verified Ivy League manner. But people were getting education who might have not gotten educations in the past and there are some really interesting women characters in that book as well. You really see that arc.

In the ‘50s volume, that really reflects a lot of, first, the postwar malaise and then, a desire for conformity and how that also creates a lot of tension. I was reading through books like "The Blunderer" by Patricia Highsmith and "Beast in View," I really feel that there are a lot of these particular undercurrents and changing more as they come through. Finally, “Fool’s Gold” by Dolores Hitchens also reflects the changes in terms of how people were viewing young people. It was only published three years after the death of James Dean. When I was reading this book, I really felt like these characters could have been straight out of “Rebel Without a Cause” or “Giant” or whatever.

For a lot of readers, the one name they’ll recognize is Patricia Highsmith. Give us a sense of how “The Blunderer” fits into the Highsmith books that people already know -- the Ripley novels and “Strangers on a Train.”

It’s a certainly not an anomalous book. I would call it an important book from a transitional standpoint; it was her second crime novel, her first one was "Strangers on a Train." Her second book was “The Price of Salt” and a new film version is about to come out and I know it’s been getting rave reviews. Then came “The Blunderer,” which I really think has a lot of the seeds for what would develop in “Talented Mr. Ripley” and subsequent Ripley novels and later suspense books like "Deep Water."

At first it seems like it’s primarily a male narrative, but of course the two men are at odds, and if you even factor in the third man, who is the cop, it really is all about how they are letting themselves be ruled by the kinds of marriage they’ve allowed themselves to be part of. Now, of course we only have the perspective of Walter Stackhouse, to trust or distrust, in terms of how this marriage is going. But clearly, it isn’t going very well if he’s contemplating getting rid of his wife, and the fact that he takes perverse inspiration in this other case and becomes kind of obsessed with the other guy who may or may not have killed his wife. That creates an incredibly strange but highly readable dynamic. Then you throw in this cop and it almost becomes a narrative about police brutality. So, it also kind of weirdly foreshadows some of the conversations we’re having now.

To kind of go back and tie it altogether, I think what this group of books does is not just reflect the time as it was, but it’s also showing how certain fundamental truths don’t change. We still worry about marriages; we still worry about what’s going on in society. A lot of the prose is really sharp and very contemporary, at least to my mind. They’re certainly of their period, but they don’t feel dated.

Part of what’s surprising about these stories is that a lot of them -- and you mentioned the Highsmith book –- have male narrators, have male detectives, male main characters. If we didn’t know that these were by women, would it be clear that these novels were “women’s fiction”?

I mean, I don’t know how the term “women’s fiction” especially applies to this group, only because, I’m of multiple minds on this. On the one hand, many of these writers, they would make their living selling stories to women’s magazines, which were incredibly important to the development of domestic suspense and related crime fiction of the ‘40s and ‘50s. But so was Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. When I edited ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives,” a short story anthology, a couple years ago for Penguin, most of my material was drawn from [there], but some of it was drawn from the Saturday Evening Post or Cosmopolitan or Collier’s or the American Magazine.

There were all these markets that had a predominantly female readership, where these women went because that’s where the money was. They might have paid more than Black Mask or some of the confessional magazines or the related pulps. A lot of that, of course, at the time was dying out and moving to paperback originals like Gold Medal and other related imprints. Gold Medal was the big one and the iconic one. I don’t know if any of the eight ever wrote for Gold Medal. There were other women writers who did, like Helen Nielsen and Vin Packer, and they’re worth mentioning just because other women working in a sort of hardboiled or noir vein. There were quite a few of those. If you look at what women were writing, in terms of crime fiction at the time, it runs a real gamut from what we would now call cozy mysteries to incredibly dark and hardboiled stuff.

The other names that will jump out to noir fans is Margaret Millar. To what extent was her work shaped by her husband, Ross Macdonald [whose real name was Kenneth Millar]? To what extent did she shape his work? Besides being married, was there a strong literary connection between them?

I find their work to be quite different. It bears pointing out that Margaret was published first and she was successful almost from the get-go. She was the one supporting Ken when he jettisoned the John Ross McDonald [pseudonym] and inhabited Ross Macdonald. It really wasn’t until he kind of threw off the yoke of the Raymond Chandler influence and found his footing.

They were intertwined largely because they were married and had a daughter. Once Linda had the accident and killed this boy, their lives were forever changed. He found psychoanalysis, her work got a lot sharper. You start to see it, not just in “Beast in View” but also later in the ‘50s in “The Listening Walls” and particularly in the ‘60s with books like “Stranger in My Grave,” “How Like an Angel” and “The Fiend,” which is the only book that I can think of a sympathetic fortune of a pedophile, so much so that he is the most pathetic character in the book. Only someone like Margaret Millar could pull that off.

And, she was an excellent plotter. Her stories had great flair, and had great twists but were also interesting from a psychological standpoint. In “Beast in View,” you have this woman who is clearly tortured out of her mind. You have these phone calls, and you also see some of the other things that are going on with her in her life and her family and how this informs the choices that she makes. While the twist may seem unsurprising to savvy readers now, in 1956 it was still pretty fresh.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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