A review of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Sarah Weinman
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wivesstories from the trailblazers of domestic suspense
Penguin
2013, 978-0-14-312254-8, $16 US, pb

“Without domestic suspense, you couldn’t have contemporary psychological suspense,” writes Sarah Weinman, the editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, a collection of fourteen stories by American women authors, written and published from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Writers are often advised to write about what they know, so it is not surprising that, in an era when most women were in caregiver roles and dependent on a male figure for financial support, these women authors wrote of the unhappiness and violence that can breed in domesticity. Since Weinman’s time frame includes World War II, I was surprised that she found no stories about women in factories or the armed forces.

The launch of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1941 was a break-through for women writers in that the editors published not only hardboiled and noir detective fiction, which was mostly written by men, but also domestic crime and suspense stories, at which women excelled. Weinman’s authors won “Edgar” nominations from the Mystery Writers of America, founded in 1945. Some of them wrote best-sellers, including novels that became motion pictures (such as Vera Caspary’s Laura). In Weinman’s view, these authors are no longer remembered, unlike some male writers like Dasheill Hammett and Ross Macdonald, because their domestic subject matter has not been taken seriously.

Weinman’s selections have been highly praised. Hallie Ephron calls the stories “forgotten gems”. Author Alafar Burke describes them as “smart, dark twisty tales …often subverting gendered cultural expectations. The cover blurb claims that the authors “took a scalpel to contemporary society and sliced away to reveal its dark essence.”

These over-the-top superlatives cannot hide the fact that some of the stories are very dated, and interesting primarily for a glimpse of bygone language and social mores. In Vera Caspary’s “Sugar and Spice”, we read, for instance: “Phyllis was being frightfully gay at this time…” and: “Gil used words he’d picked up backstage, filth which belonged to the riffraff of the theatre and which had never before soiled the lips of that dignified actor.” “Sugar and Spice”, like several other stories, is too long for the size of the core idea.

I was disappointed in the stories by two famous authors, Patricia Highsmith (best known for The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Shirley Jackson (acclaimed for “The Lottery”) Highsmith’s story, “The Heroine” has a chopped-off ending. In “Louisa, Please Come Home”, Jackson tells us how the protagonist ran away from her family, but not why. Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is not scary or suspenseful.

Do the stories “take a scalpel to contemporary society and expose its dark essence”? That’s debatable. Two offer mild social criticism. Nedra Tyre’s “A Nice Place to Sleep” is an ironic story about a woman living in poverty who finally finds a “home” with adequate food, company and activities – a prison cell. Dorothy B. Hughes’s story, “Everybody Needs a Mink” reflects American materialism so deeply ingrained that when an elderly stranger buys a housewife a mink coat, she and her husband do not dig too deeply for an explanation.

The darkest, creepiest stories are “Lavender Lady” by Barbara Callaghan and “The Purple Shroud” by Joyce Harrington. “Lavender Lady”, published in 1976, is about a folk singer who cannot face a childhood experience  – being kidnapped by her much-loved caregiver, who not only conspired to hold her for ransom but also intended to kill her. She alludes to the experience, indirectly, in a song, but cannot bear it when someone close to her tells the truth to a stranger. In “The Purple Shroud”, published in 1972, Joyce Harrington achieves suspense by gradually showing us that a likeable middle-aged craftswoman is carefully plotting the death of her philandering artist husband.

The abovementioned two stories, along with “A Nice Place to Stay”, were published in the 1970s, when the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was under way and women were starting to take their place in the public sphere. The narration is less dated than in some earlier stories; “Lavender Lady” is somewhat experimental in presentation.

Do the stories in this collection “subvert gendered cultural expectations”? Generally, no; in fact, several reinforce these expectations. Four of the stories have the very traditional theme of a married women worried about losing her husband to another woman.  Three stories show young independent self-supporting women, but none of them are good examples of mental health. A couple of the main characters seem to have been driven to homicide because of their lack of a traditional family.

What these stories subvert are the hierarchical arrangements accepted in traditional family life. Harrington’s protagonist objects to the double standard that condones a husband’s adultery; Charlotte Armstrong’s murderer kills her mother-in-law, and Shirley Jackson presents a dysfunctional parent-child relationship.  Weinman says that the stories “hit nerves” that were really “fault lines in societies undergoing change”.

Weinman omitted two of my favourite authors, Joyce Carol Oates and Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), because they didn’t start publishing psychological suspense until the 1980s. Nineteen-eighty-six is Weinman’s date for the advent of a new era of women’s crimewriting, because that was the year that authors Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others founded Sisters in Crime. The post 1986 novelists have a non-traditional attitude about the role of women. Grafton and Paretsky created women detectives who are single, independent and can take on crimes outside the home and solve them. They are childfree; their friends take the place of family for them.

Some of the “domestic suspense” stories in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives are fresh and timeless; others are artefacts from the past, but all are interesting.  Weinman deserves praise for bringing them to light.

Ruth Latta is the author of four mystery novels featuring a woman amateur detective of mature years who is definitely not Miss Marple. Tea with Delilah, The Secret of White Birch Road, Illusions Die, and Memories Stick are available from the author or from baico@bellnet.ca

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