Hardboiled Women

Review: The Library of America’s ‘Women Crime Writers: Eight Crime Novels of the 1940s & 1950s,’ ed. Sarah Weinman

women crime writers

Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy B. Hughes / Wikimedia Commons


Sarah Weinman, a scholar of detective fiction, has assembled a fine collection of mystery novels written by women in the 1940s and 1950s. As always with books from the Library of America, Women Crime Writers is beautifully made, and the collection has not gone unnoticed. A mention in the New Yorker followed an interview in the Paris Review, which followed notices in newspapers from the New York Times to the Washington Post. In fact, Women Crime Writers has received so much attention—all of it good, much of it deserved—that only one thing remains to be said. Which is: What a screwy, half-baked, and self-contradictory project this collection proves to be.

Not that there’s anything wrong with bringing back into circulation such forgotten works as Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall, or reminding mystery buffs of Vera Caspary’s Laura and Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place. No voracious reader of detective fiction will complain, since these were all better-than-average books of their era, which was no mean feat in the days that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler defined the new prose of the hard-boiled American crime novel. It’s just that the uniting theme—declared in the book’s introduction and echoed in its many reviews—is that women authors of those days were unfairly oppressed by mystery publishers and neglected by mystery readers, but those women nonetheless managed to create, unnoticed, the never-seen-before genre of the psychological and domestic crime story.

All of which is complete twaddle. Are we supposed to forget that the first widely noticed American writer of a modern detective novel was a women, Anna Katharine Green, with The Leavenworth Case in 1878? Are we supposed to deny the existence of Agatha Christie, possibly the highest-selling author of all time? "The story of crime fiction in America has been largely understood as a male one," Weinman begins her introduction to Women Crime Writers, and all one can do is ask the name of the planet on which she has been doing her reading. Women may form the majority of mystery writers, and they certainly form the majority of mystery readers—and if there ever was a level playing field on which men and women could compete, it was surely found in mystery fiction.

More to the point, women and men alike had been giving mystery fiction domestic settings with psychological themes long before the women writers of the 1940s and 1950s. Back in the gaslight days of Sherlock Holmes, Catherine Louisa Pirkis had already made that move with her 1894 "The Redhill Sisterhood." Even if we were to ignore such classic authors as Margery Allingham and Anthony Berkeley, stuffed to the gills with domestic scenes, what are we to do with the sadly neglected H.C. Bailey—among all Golden Age authors, the writer of perhaps the most psychologically driven plots?

Weinman insists that her women’s novels "featured a more subtle approach to the human condition" than men’s from the same era, which she thinks to prove by noting, "You wouldn’t catch a woman like Sylvia Nicolai, the cop’s wife who engineers Dix Steele’s doom in Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, in one of Mickey Spillane’s ultraviolent Mike Hammer novels." That’s true, I suppose, but who ever praised a Mike Hammer novel for its psychological insight? Spillane was infamous, in his day, for being the writer of semi-literate, semi-porn thrillers, and to claim subtlety for an author by comparing her work to Spillane’s is a little like praising the sexual restraint of a romance novel by pointing out that it wasn’t written by the Marquis de Sade.

Even in its own terms, the idea behind Women Crime Writers doesn’t gel, and the selected works refuse to combine into proof of a new noir sub-genre of psychological domestic mysteries. Both Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man and Margaret Millar’s Beast in View use the hoary (and probably false) device of split personalities, which is psychological, I suppose, if not particularly subtle. But The Horizontal Man, a tale of murderous tensions just below the placid surface of academia, isn’t domestic so much as cloistered, in a style known from the scenes of clerical life that Anthony Trollope and George Eliot both chronicled—a style carried into detective fiction with the sub-genre of Cathedral Close mysteries.

Meanwhile, Dolores Hitchens’s Fools’ Gold isn’t domestic at all, but an enjoyable (and not particularly womanly) tale of older, experienced criminals running rings around a pair of young, amateur hoodlums. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall tells the story of a woman, an isolated wife, forced to hide a murder, and here Weinman’s collection does finally wander onto its feminist domestic ground. Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, too, in its way: a picture of a babysitter as a bad seed, sowing destruction all around her. But neither of them is especially hard-boiled or noir, and neither of them is much advance on what other authors of the era, men and women alike, were writing.

Women Crime Writers is enjoyable and deserving of praise to the extent that the collection offers the chance to read such work as Vera Caspary’s Laura—a good movie, but an even better book, with its surprisingly-not-dead heroine revealed as far more of a hard-headed, driven woman than the film version allowed. But these all are minor works when compared, for example, to the two-volume Crime Novels: American Noir that the Library of America published in 1997. That earlier collection ran from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (which had its own version of a bad domestic setting) to Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (which had its own take on psychology). And every one of the novels felt alive, innovative, and powerful—topped off by Patricia Highsmith’s disturbing masterpiece, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Nothing in Women Crime Writers can approach it.

Nothing, that is, except Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, the final entry in Weinman’s collection. While not as completely satisfying as the Ripley stories, The Blunderer proves that Highsmith rarely took a wrong step. And if the reader ignores the domestic psychology frame that Weinman tries to impose on it, the novel proves yet another example of Highsmith’s fascination with swapped identities. With Strangers on a Train, she wrote the classic account of exchanged murders, and with The Talented Mr. Ripley she traced the career of a man who murdered his friend and took his place. In The Blunderer, she gives us a man who figures out, from newspaper reports, that a woman had been murdered by her husband—and decides to kill his own wife the same way, only to blunder his way into catastrophe as he attempts to follow the successful crime of his model.

The Blunderer has good domestic settings and good psychological observations. Moreover, it’s by a woman. Unfortunately, even Highsmith’s work is not enough to establish Sarah Weinman’s thesis in Women Crime Writers. It’s just a pretty good mystery novel—which is, after all, the only reason we read such books. Forget the angle of women’s subtlety, forget the dated Freudianism of the 1940s and 1950s, forget the implausible domestic settings, and praise Women Crime Writers for what it does achieve: bringing back into view some forgotten stories that are worth a reader’s time.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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