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Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s

de Sarah Weinman (Editor)

Outros autores: Vera Caspary (Contribuinte), Helen Eustis (Contribuinte), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (Contribuinte), Dorothy B. Hughes (Contribuinte)

Séries: Women Crime Writers (1)

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Four suspense novels of the 1940s. These four stories explore the terrors of family life, personality disorders, and horrors of the mind.

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Before I picked up this volume, I've only heard the names of one of the 4 authors collected here - Dorothy B. Hughes - and even with her, I am not sure I had read anything by her. I like the period and I like the genre in the period so that is a curious oversight (which has a lot to do with what is kept in print - if you had asked me a few months ago to name 4 female suspense novelists from the 1940s, I probably would not have been able to name even Hughes).

The 4 novels collected here may be in the same genre but they are very different from each other. And while all of them have dated elements, they are no more dated than anything published in the 40s.

Laura by Vera Caspary (originally published in serialized form in 1942 and in a book form in 1943) uses multiple narrators to tell us the story of a murder. Each part is narrated by someone new thus adding new pieces to the puzzle. The murder victim is presumed to be Laura, an advertiser who was not exactly the meek woman everyone expected her to be. Her face was completely destroyed when she was shot - but based on where the body was and what she wore, everyone is pretty sure in her identity. And this is where this novel probably read very differently 80 years ago. These days the destroyed face makes you expect a wrong identification - it had become a cliche in the genre (and a clumsy one at that for the most part). So a lot of the surprise in the novel is lost - when Laura shows up alive and well, it felt expected. And yet, the novel managed to surprise me. Giving one of the voices to the detective assigned to the case who proceeds to fall in love with the woman he believes to be dead gave the story the grittiness it needed.

Of course the format was not new even back then - Wilkie Collins used the same narrative style in "The Woman in White". What makes the format work is managing to create believable voices and keeping track of who knows what when (and who does not know what when). Capary pulls it off - she even managed to surprise me with the end - not because it was illogical but because there were more obvious (and a lot less satisfying) endings possible.

The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis (published in 1946) won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in its year (it was only the second year for the award). Kevin Boyle, a professor who likes women a bit too much, manages to get himself killed and the novel follows the investigation of that murder. The college president is too worried about the reputation of the college so the job ends up being done by an undergraduate, Kate, and her newspaper reporter friend (who spends half of the book trying to get Kate). It is a somewhat psychedelic novel - at different times it is unclear who is breaking down and who is faking a break down and at various times different characters, from both genders, end up hysterical. While I can see why it got the award in its year, it was my least favorite of the 4 novels in this omnibus (which does not mean that I disliked it). Eustis plays with the expected norms for the genders, bending them out of shape and having characters behave as one would expect a member of the other genre to behave. It feels almost caricaturish in places but then I am looking at it 80 years later.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (1947) is as noir as a novel can be. The story is told by an ex-airman named Dix Steele had ended up in LA after the war. He connects with a friend from the service who happens to be a policeman now, chasing after a serial killer. And the game of cat and mouse starts - because our Dix had been spending some of his nights strangling women. It becomes clear to the reader early in the novel so one can appreciate the complexity of the novel. Having Dix narrate the story was a brilliant choice - we know he is an unreliable narrator but finding the line between him lying and him not knowing things and having him surprised by events a reader can see coming was delightful. Psychological suspense is a popular genre and there are a lot of modern writers who excel in it - and this novel is probably better than most I had read in the genre.

In The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1947), we meet Lucia Holley - a mother of two, with a husband deployed overseas (the novel is set during WWII), living with her father and children (and the African American housekeeper Sybil) in a big house, away from the big city. Both her father and her daughter are strong-willed and willing to push Lucia as much as possible and trying to deal with a household in the middle of the war shortages is stressing on its own. To find herself in the middle of a blackmail scandal, with a dead body showing up and a man she may be falling in love with despite his past being around, was the last thing she expected. Except that she cannot have the scandal so the timid housewife decides she will do anything she can to save her family - without telling them what she is doing. The novel could have descended into parody but it never happens. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we get to learn a lot more about Sybil and two women who had depended on each other anyway, get closer and closer to a friendship - as unlikely as this may be on the surface.

All 4 novels had been adapted into movies (and some of them in radio-plays as well). I had not watched any of the movies - all 4 stories were new to me. And I greatly enjoyed them. None of them is perfect but none of them feel so dated so that it becomes unreadable either.

Library of America has a companion volume with 4 more novels (from the 1950s) and I plan to read them soon - and then go chasing more of these early stories. LOA put together a site for the series of 2 omnibuses who has (among other things) a chronology of suspense novels by women (http://womencrime.loa.org/?page_id=367) and their movies adaptations (http://womencrime.loa.org/?page_id=189), reviews/appreciations for each of the 8 novels by a currently working in the genre female author (with one exception - Charles Finch for The Horizontal Man - which is oddly appropriate considering the novel) and Sarah Weinman's introduction to the series and the genre (http://womencrime.loa.org/?page_id=187) which LOA decided not to print in the books so if you want it, you need to read it online. ( )
  AnnieMod | Mar 16, 2023 |
These were four thoroughly enjoyable mysteries from women authors of the 40s. What is interesting to me, is that they wrote in a sexist manner; like a man would! I suppose they wouldn't have been published if they didn't, but . . . For example, they all used the tiresome"the man" and "the girl," as if every woman character is a 12-year-old girl. ( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
Read Laura by V. Caspary. Not what I expected having seen parts of and read a little about the movie. Shifting POV was interesting. Again though, it all seemed pretty unlikely.
  FKarr | Jul 18, 2021 |
Finished: 20.04.2021. ( )
  untraveller | May 8, 2021 |
The best of the novels in this collection. Finished: 18.04.2021. ( )
  untraveller | May 8, 2021 |
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Nome do autorFunçãoTipo de autorObra?Status
Weinman, SarahEditorautor principaltodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Caspary, VeraContribuinteautor secundáriotodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Eustis, HelenContribuinteautor secundáriotodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Holding, Elisabeth SanxayContribuinteautor secundáriotodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Hughes, Dorothy B.Contribuinteautor secundáriotodas as ediçõesconfirmado
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Four suspense novels of the 1940s. These four stories explore the terrors of family life, personality disorders, and horrors of the mind.

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