- Interview by Molly Odintz
For the past few decades a sense of a crime novel canon, a set of essential classics, has taken on form and substance. We can all acknowledge the innovators and masters of the genre, yet unless we contemplate golden-era British detective fiction, most of the authors already incorporated into the crime fiction canon are male. And yet, those names make up only a part of crime fiction’s history.
“I think it’s important to note that feminism is something that is present in terms of a reflection of the lives these women led, not necessarily because they themselves identified with the cause…The wonderful thing about feminism is it includes everyone, whether they really want to be there or not, because the tenets are so simple: equality for both genders.”
Women have always made up a substantial chunk of the most popular writers in the genre, whether writing golden-era detective novels, thrillers, noir, or the recently repopularized domestic suspense novel, yet women in genre fiction tend to go out of print as soon as they stop writing new fiction unless they have established a wildly popular series. When classics of the genre have been brought back into print, most often, publishers have chosen to privilege works by men – until now, with Library of America’s Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 40s and 50s, released last year.
As International Women’s Month draws to a close, feast your eyes on an interview with Sarah Weinman, editor of the incredible Library of America collection, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 40s and 50s. The two-volume set, also sold seperately by decade, contains eight novels, four per decade. The collection’s companion website includes thoughtful essays on each book included in the LoA collection from some of the premier figures of the detective novel world, including contributions from Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Sara Paretsky, among others.
“Criticism requires a somewhat different toolbox than does journalism, than certainly does fiction or reading, but all are informed by the other and inform each other. I sure would not have it any other way, except maybe making more time for fiction…”
Sarah Weinman is previously the editor of the anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, and has been instrumental in bringing long-neglected classic crime and suspense stories by women authors back into print and into the public eye. Thanks to Sarah for letting us send these questions along!
Molly Odintz: It must have been incredibly difficult to decide which volumes to include in this collection – how did you assemble the works that made it in?
Sarah Weinman: We certainly had many spirited meetings over selections, but the truth of the matter is, most of what constituted Women Crime Writers was a fairly speedy consensus. The LoA publisher and editor, Max Rudin & Geoffrey O’Brien, and I agreed quickly on In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes,The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and Laura by Vera Caspary, so that was 3/4 of the 1940s volume. O’Brien suggested The Horizontal Man, which I knew about but hadn’t read, and once I did I realized it had to be in there. For the 1950s, we knew we had to have a Charlotte Armstrong and a Margaret Millar and they would *probably* be Mischief and Beast in View but we did talk about some other 1950s titles just in case — but then settled on those two. Dolores Hitchens was a strong choice early on but getting a hold of a copy of Fool’s Gold was not easy, and in the meantime we also really came close to including Dorothy Salisbury Davis (I really, really love A Gentle Murderer.) So weirdly enough, the Highsmith came late, and it took a couple of tries for me to really get into The Blunderer, but once I did, I think it was the final connective glue for the entire collection that really solidifies the whole group.
Criticism requires a somewhat different toolbox than does journalism, than certainly does fiction or reading, but all are informed by the other and inform each other. I sure would not have it any other way, except maybe making more time for fiction…
MO: To me, the contrast between domestic suspense and “stranger danger” plots mirrors the different ways men and women perceive violence – male authors tend to write heroes whose loved ones or clients suffer violence from a stranger or a known villain whose evil nature is unambigous, while female writers tend to write murder the way murders are more likely to be committed; by a loved one, or a known, ambiguous entity. How much did you note the gender difference between domestic suspense and stranger danger/home invasion novels while putting together this collection, or in your career as an incredibly knowledgable mystery lover?
SW: I do like the distinction, though I’m not sure I would entirely agree. Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay write domestic suspense — perhaps at a brisker, higher-octane level, but they both share literary DNA with Mary Higgins Clark, whose 1975 novel Where are the Children? I consider to be the inflection point between the domestic suspense featured in Women Crime Writers and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and contemporary psychological suspense (and Clark, whom I profiled last year, still has so much to teach us. What a legend.) But so many thrillers written by men are of the “hero tries to save the world” variety and domestic suspense is more “heroine overcomes fear of current world”, to simplify things greatly. When your loved ones present the most danger in your world, that is frightening, and it is so terribly real — considering how many women are killed by people they know and love, or once did.
MO: The companion website for the Women Crime Writers collection is impeccable – do you think we are entering into a golden era of the printed word and the online critic? Will more volumes to come follow this pattern?
SW: I would love to see more volumes and the Library of America and I are in discussions about that, but such things also depend on continued book sales for the first set! And thank you for the kind words on the companion website, also a true collaboration and one I’m very proud of. As for a golden era, I’m not sure, but I’ve always thought good criticism, and good writing, finds its audience, no matter the medium, and I don’t see that changing.
MO: Helen Eustis’ The Horizontal Man takes place in a women’s college, and passes the Bechdel test more readily than the rest of the novels included in the set, given its’ predominantly female cast of characters. However, Eustis wrote the novel during WWII, when perhaps the portrayal of female community would have been more acceptable to the American public, given that the men had gone off to war. The novel features a strong, intelligent, and independent female amateur sleuth who cares not a wit for fashion, yet gets married off at the end. Would you consider this book, and its portrayal of female community and women’s colleges, to be subversive for its time? How, feminism-wise, do you think The Horizontal Man stacks up against Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (also set in a women’s college, and also concluding with an independent woman settling down)?
SW: If The Horizontal Man is subversive I think that’s more a reflection of Eustis herself than the larger culture, though of course, the book could not have been written without some sense of the larger culture. Eustis was at a pivotal place in her life: she’d divorced her first husband, Alfred Fisher (previously married to MFK Fisher, the famed food critic) who had been her professor at Smith College. She had a graduate degree when it was still not *that* common among women to pursue post-grad work. She was an editor at Harper’s and friends with Truman Capote. She’d married again. She had a young son. And her father, once a prominent stockbroker in the midwest, had shot himself in a fancy hotel because of too many accumulated debts and because his own wife was finally leaving him. So in Eustis’s world women stood up for themselves but also suffered severe consequences still. And it wouldn’t be long, not even a decade, before she herself stopped writing.
I think it’s important to note that feminism is something that is present in terms of a reflection of the lives these women led, not necessarily because they themselves identified with the cause. Vera Caspary did and was glad to but Dorothy Hughes most certainly did not. Others I think were more ambivalent or just didn’t understand why it was important. The wonderful thing about feminism is it includes everyone, whether they really want to be there or not, because the tenets are so simple: equality for both genders.
…So many thrillers written by men are of the “hero tries to save the world” variety and domestic suspense is more “heroine overcomes fear of current world”, to simplify things greatly. When your loved ones present the most danger in your world, that is frightening, and it is so terribly real — considering how many women are killed by people they know and love, or once did.”
MO: You approach the mystery genre from so many professional angles – writing, editing, analyzing. What ways do you interact with the genre differently as an editor versus a writer? Do you have to switch between editor, writer and critic perspectives based on what you’re working on, or do you incorporate them all together?
SW: It all gets pretty fluid. I do talk about “wearing many hats” because I do, but even though I have a full-time job I also work from home, as I did when I was a full-time freelancer for years before then, so the work method feels similar. That said, the perspective presents itself depending on the piece. Criticism requires a somewhat different toolbox than does journalism, than certainly does fiction or reading, but all are informed by the other and inform each other. I sure would not have it any other way, except maybe making more time for fiction (I’ve been in a solid nonfiction mode since the beginning of the year, but hoping to get back to some more fiction writing this summer.)
MO: The three most prominent women crime writers to stay in print continuously till today – Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie – were all quite bigoted in some of their opinions (although in ways consistent with their generation). It seems as if those writers whose personal opinions might seem offensive, or off-kilter, to modern readers, have also been the authors most likely to stay in print. Why do you think so many works by other women crime writers, who may have held more progressive opinions for their time, went out of print so quickly?
SW: I hadn’t thought of it in terms of “offensive” or “bigoted” before, to be honest! So I will answer this in a roundabout way, which is that the colorful lives of Highsmith, Sayers, and Christie, coupled with their enduring sales figures, means they have been rife for scholarly research and popular biography. We know so much about Highsmith because of the biographies by Andrew Wilson (Beautiful Shadow) and Joan Schenkar (The Talented Miss Highsmith). Christie’s “lost weeks” in Harrogate have been written about a lot, and I think Laura Thompson recently wrote a well-received biography of her. Sayers has had a number of biographies, too. So when outside research is done there is more of a chance of a writer sticking with the culture, and when there isn’t, or the research/biography doesn’t get a lot of sustained attention, they may not. In particular I’d love to see biographies of Dorothy B. Hughes and Vera Caspary and Margaret Millar, who led fascinating professional and personal lives (Caspary wrote up a lot of it in her fantastic 1979 biography The Secrets of Grown-Ups.) But will they be commercially viable? I’d love to think so.