Sarah Weinman, crime fiction connoisseur and editor of the essential new anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, is admirably doing her utmost to revive, restore, and reinvent the once highly-popular thriller subgenre of Domestic Suspense.
Primarily written by women, this fiction penetrates the veneer of familial serenity to the dark side of homelife, exposing the creepy conundrums inherent in what are perceived as “women’s issues” and the female domain. During the genre’s heydey, from the post-war years until the early seventies, the concept of the nuclear family and the idea that “a woman’s place is in the home” had a stranglehold on the American psyche. The doyennes of Domestic Suspense strove to subvert the idealized family in their fiction and disturb their readers out of complacency.
Ironically, these widely-read authors began to disappear with the rise of second-wave feminism when women, ostensibly gaining entry into male bastions and professions, came to reject the domestic sphere. Ultimately, Domestic Suspense writers fell into oblivion mostly because, as Weinman notes in her excellent introduction, there was no institutional backing for them as there was for their male counterparts. Women writers were practically excluded from renowned reprint lines such as Black Lizard and Library of America that kept the work of male crime writers alive.
Weinman, who writes about contemporary crime fiction, became increasingly drawn to women writers in the field. She searched for the antecedents of authors such as Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Attica Locke, and just before them, Liza Cody, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Joyce Carol Oates. The early 20th-century “Queens of Crime” — Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh — were women who managed to break into and flourish within the more “male” crime genre in which good inevitably triumphs over evil, but Weinman’s research led her to other women writers whose fiction featured “ordinary people, particularly women, trying to make sense of a disordered world with small stakes, where the most important worry is whether a person takes good care of her children, stands up to a recalcitrant spouse or contends with how best to fit — or subvert — social mores.”
Weinman’s eclectic sampling pulls together unknown, better known, and well-known writers of the genre. Distinct stylistically, they all delight in unsettling the settled. Patricia Highsmith has pride of place with “The Heroine,” a deeply disconcerting story — especially for parents — about a nanny who so severely loves her job she’ll do anything to keep it.
In Highsmith’s novels the protagonists are mostly male but Weinman mentions two exceptions: Edith’s Diary, widely considered to be her masterpiece, about a woman who invents a happy family as she descends into madness; and The Price of Salt, a two-woman road trip novel that Terry Castle claims inspired Nabokov’s Lolita.
Another author here of similarly enduring fame is Shirley Jackson, best known for her much anthologized short story “The Lottery,”
though a number of her superb novels, such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) about a greedy relative who dares to disturb the macabre ménage of two weird sisters and their uncle, are exemplars of Domestic Suspense. Her story “Louisa, Please Come Home” reveals how our fantasy of home and family can be dangerously more compelling than the reality.
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, whom Raymond Chandler called “the top suspense writer of them all,” is represented by the story “The Stranger in the Car” reminiscent of her most famous novel The Blank Wall (1947) in that it sharply contrasts the perceived weakness and passivity of women with their fierce determination to protect their family and sphere. Charlotte Armstrong was a prominent suspense writer in the 1950s and 1960s, her work often used by Claude Chabrol for his films — La Rupture (1970); Merci pour le chocolat (2000) — and her novel Mischief was the basis for the Marilyn Monroe film Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). Her classic novel Lemon in the Basket (1967) slowly and relentlessly disassembles all appearances of a normal, talented, wealthy family. Armstrong’s story here, “The Splintered Monday,” revolves around an elderly aunt who refuses to be cowed by the condescension and invisibility society affords people of her age and gender. Margaret Millar, one of crime fictions very best practitioners, never received the recognition granted her husband Ross MacDonald. Beast in View, Stranger in My Grave, The Fiend, Banshee, Fire Will Freeze, Rose’s Last Summer — so many of her twenty-five novels are simply great. Two of her finest, The Listening Walls, about a brother obsessed with his sister, and Beyond This Point Are Monsters, a tantalizing depiction of a clashing mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, explore family dynamics gone terribly awry. Her story “The People Across the Canyon” is about a girl who expresses her disappointment in her parents by inventing another set.
The remainder (half) of the writers included in Troubled Daughters were new discoveries for me… READ THE REST OF THE COLUMN HERE AT BOOKSLUT