Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Sarah Weinman-editor, Penguin Books, 2013, 352 pp
This post is dedicated to readers and writers of mystery and crime fiction, of which I know a few. Sarah Weinman, queen of mystery and crime fiction reviews, has done a great thing. In this collection of stories, subtitled Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, she has revived female writers of such stories from the middle third of the 20th century. These women laid the groundwork for Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Tana French, and many more.
I do not generally enjoy short fiction. I am a novel reader. Short stories just seem too short and don't give me enough time to sink into them before they are over. But back in my teen years when mainstream magazines still published shorts, I read every one I could find in my mom's mags (Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal) as well as my own (Seventeen, Mademoiselle.) After reading this collection, I think I have been trying to read the wrong short stories lately.
These fourteen selections feature daughters, wives, and mothers who are either frustrated with the roles available to them or simply refuse to stay within those roles. I don't mean Rosie the Riveter types or even fast, promiscuous types. These are girls and women, entrenched in domestic life, who go a little nuts and take matters into their own hands.
Each author gets a short bio and career overview before the selected story. A couple of them have already been "rediscovered" in the past decade: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson in particular.
In "The Heroine," an early story by Highsmith, a young woman whose insane mother has recently died, takes a job as a nanny to convince herself that she is not crazy like her mom. The results are what you would expect from Highsmith. Shirley Jackson's tale of a runaway daughter ends with a psychological plot twist reminiscent of her novel The Road Through the Wall. "Louisa Please Come Home" was first published in Ladies Home Journal in 1960 and I very well may have read it then!
Several stories feature women who resort to murder. The planning, the attention to detail, the multitasking involved, show women whose domestic skills come in quite handy when they put their minds to murder. "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington takes place at a summer art colony where her serially unfaithful husband teaches painting. Mrs Moon is a weaver and spends the summer weaving the shroud of the title, in which she wraps Mr Moon after she murders him on the last day of that summer session. She is so successful that she sets off in her VW bug to commit another crime.
The calm and deliberate building of suspense interwoven with the motives and inner lives of women are what make reading these stories thrilling, even juicy. You know those days when a man in your life has made you so angry you could just kill him? Well, some women go ahead and do it!
For over a decade I have been carrying out a self-created project of reading 20 to 40 novels for each of the years I have lived, in chronological order, including best sellers, award winners, genre and literary fiction. (Known on this blog as My Big Fat Reading Project.) The Edgar Awards, created by the Mystery Writers of America, began awarding a best novel each year in 1954. In making my way through those winners I was introduced to excellent novels by Charlotte Armstrong, Celia Freeman, and Margaret Millar, all three of whom are featured in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.
These authors made a living writing mystery and crime novels and short stories. In my opinion they did as much for women as all the stages of feminism have, by counteracting the straightjacket women of the 1950s and early 1960s were expected to wear. Want to know what those women really felt, what they really wanted? Take a look at some of these stories.
(Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)