by Sarah Weinman
The story of crime fiction in America has been largely understood as a male one. Starting with the terrifying tales of Edgar Allan Poe, moving to early “Great Detective” imitations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, on to the hardboiled tradition created and perfected by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, expanded to a mass audience by pulp paperback novels, and further refined and honed by the likes of David Goodis, Ross Macdonald, and Elmore Leonard.
That story, of course, is far from the truth. In fact, women were publishing crime fiction from close to its inception, with Metta Fuller Victor (The Dead Letter) and Anna Katherine Green (The Leavenworth Case) beating Conan Doyle to the detective punch in 1866 and 1878, respectively, and Carolyn Wells publishing her Fleming Stone series soon after. That women were always part of the tradition somehow got sanded over, whether by accident or willful design, even though they were always there, paving their own distinct pathways through the rules and tropes of the genre. They took as much from deductive ratiocination as they did from the Gothic tradition made famous by the Bronte sisters.
What we take to be the earliest of modern American crime fiction grew out of pulp fiction magazines founded in the early 1920s. Something darker and more amorphous emerged in the weedier, seedier corners occupied by the pulps, allowing the brute nihilism of Carroll John Daly, James M. Cain, Paul Cain (no relation), and Dashiell Hammett, among others, to gather serious followings in magazines like Black Mask and Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. They had seen the worst the world offered during World War I and instead of retreating into rarefied worlds and detecting clubs, they embraced the darkness, the tough, clipped language, the heavy action and doomed endings. They were Edgar Allan Poe’s horror tales gone modern, rewritten in contemporary vernacular.American women crime writers drew from other traditions: the spy story pioneered by Erskine Childers and G. K. Chesterton and made contemporary by Eric Ambler and Graham Greene; the “Queens of Suspense” across the Atlantic like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham; and the “Had I But Known” school invented by Mary Roberts Rinehart in 1907 and further popularized by Mignon Eberhart and Mabel Seeley in the 1920s and 1930s; the unrelenting dread of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger, seasoned with a Gothic flavor, a quarter-century later, in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; and psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung. In these works, the heroines were notably passive: events happened to them, and if they were active arbiters of their fate, it was only at the very last moment. The midcentury generation of American women crime writers created a tradition that I call “domestic suspense.” Writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Charlotte Armstrong, Vera Caspary, Helen Nielsen, Nedra Tyre, and Ursula Curtiss were less concerned with pre-existing rules of the genre, instead preferring to blur boundaries, write outside the lines. They featured a more subtle approach to the human condition, where the most important dilemmas centered on the vulnerability of children, a threatening spouse, or the subtle sadism of social mores. The overly fragile heroines gave way to more complicated, layered protagonists who chafed against pre-war roles and found inner strength battling dread from all corners. These characters differed considerably from those in the novels of their male peers, who were more often ornamental displays or incidental players in the theater of the brooding, hardboiled male detective. 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.
The tension of being trapped in an unhappy marriage, or of an independent life being snatched away, of being a misfit within a community, found fruit—of the poisoned kind—within domestic suspense stories. Domestic suspense is the mirror image of romance fiction; where romance is about conflict resolving into a happy ending, domestic suspense is about a happy beginning (of marriage, children, or independence) splintering into chaos. With the post-war economy on the upswing and new technology, like inexpensive cars and kitchen appliances, freshly available to couples and families, it seemed a simple thing to slip back into traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood, even if those roles were outmoded. Novels of domestic suspense took the fantasy of suburban living and uncovered the bile and dreck subsisting underneath, a clever subversion that also doubled as a mirror to sublimated terror.