Thursday, November 21, 2013

FFB: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - Sarah Weinman, editor

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Lives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense
edited and introduced by Sarah Weinman
Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 978-0143122548
384 pages $16.00
Publication date: August 2013

Yes, it's a brand new book and it's my choice for Friday's Forgotten Book. I guess this is a cheat of sorts. Since many of these women writers are utterly forgotten (but not by me -- I've written about many of their novels here) and this review is months overdue (I finished this book back in August) it's time to get it up on the blog.

Sarah Weinman has gathered together an impressive array of woman mystery writers who were instrumental in the development of a subgenre she likes to call domestic suspense. The anthology brings together pioneers in crime fiction like Margaret Millar, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong with stalwarts like Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, and Dorothy B. Hughes. Rounding out the group are the modern and all too often forgotten writers like Nedra Tyre and Celia Fremlin, and wonderful new finds like Joyce Harrington and Barbara Callahan. There are a total of fourteen women represented with a variety of stories that run the gamut from creepy and atmospheric to outright nasty. There is even a surprise happy ending delivered in "Everybody Needs a Mink", an atypically lighthearted story from Hughes normally known for her novels of paranoia and dread.

I would’ve liked a better story from Margaret Millar than her oft anthologized "The People Across the Canyon", a story even if you have never read it before will seem very familiar as it recycles an idea used too frequently in crime fiction. The story from Shirley Jackson, a master of both the novel and short story, is unfortunately the weakest and least satisfying in the collection. There has to be a better example from her pen than "Louisa, Please Come Home" which lacked bite and pizazz compared with the quality of the others selected. But the rest of the stories each have something to recommend them. Below are highlights from half the collection.

"A Nice Place to Stay" by Nedra Tyre
Tyre was a regular contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine where she published over forty short stories. In this tale she captures the voice of a loner woman whose only desire is a comfortable life, good food and a nice place to stay. An opportunistic lawyer jumps on her case and turns her into tool to advance his career. But the narrator has a surprise in store for all his hard work.

"Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree" by Helen Nielsen
I am a big fan of Nielsen’s novels and also her TV scripts for shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In this story she takes the old trope of the anonymous phone caller and gives it a Nielsen triple twist. The story is notable for her narrative trick of weaving back and forth between the past and present in order to build suspense.

"Lavender Lady" by Barbara Callahan
An example of the creepy domestic suspense story and very well done. The story tells the origins of a popular folk tune as narrated by a singer/songwriter. Slowly we learn how her muse has affected her creative life. The repetition of the song lyrics are like the chants and doggerel of doom so often found in fairy tales.

"Lost Generation" by Dorothy Salisbury Davis
The most experimental and mature of the lot. As in The Judas Cat and The Clay Hand, both early novels about how violence uncovers the corruption of small town’s population, Davis does in miniature and with an economy of words another story of rural life and crime. The narrative structure is layered with ambiguity and requires assiduous reading to glean all the subtleties. The relationships are revealed through bare bones dialogue and minimal description. It’s almost like a radio drama. Quite an impressive feat, loaded with sharp details and yet it’s the one of the shortest pieces.

"The Heroine" by Patricia Highsmith
As I was reading this one I couldn’t help but think of “The Turn of the Screw” and movies like The Nanny. Another one of those stories about a possibly mentally ill woman left in charge of children. Lucille has an obsessive need to prove herself and suffers from a few delusions. You know something is odd about her but you keep hoping that she isn’t a crazed lunatic. The ending is a shocker.

Joyce Harrington (a former actress) confesses
she writes by the Stanislavski method
"Mortmain" by Miriam Allen DeFord
Probably the nastiest story in the collection. Reminiscent of the kind of macabre irony Roald Dahl perfected in his short fiction. DeFord tells the story of a greedy nurse taking care of an ailing deputy sheriff and how her scheme to steal money from his safe goes horribly wrong. Has a gasp inducing ending proving this story to be the only true noir tale in the collection.

For me the gem of the book is "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington, a writer whose work I knew nothing about until I read this tale. It’s a little masterpiece. Each carefully chosen word rings true. The brilliant use of weaving imagery from the work on the loom to the spider spinning its web, the language used to evoke the serenity of Mrs. Moon’s state of mind as she plots revenge on her womanizing husband –- it’s all perfect. Here is the epitome of what Weinman talks about in her informative introduction defining the aspects of domestic suspense. If I were you I’d save it for the very last and savor it like a fine wine. It’s really that good.

11 comments:

  1. Well, I've got to have this - I'd not heard about this at all but even with a few duds (Millar jdidn't write a lot of short fiction, did she?) it really sounds like a great collection. Cheers mate.

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    1. There's at least one volume of Millar's stories from Crippen & Landru The Couple Next Door. The title story happens to be another of hers that turns up a lot in anthologies. It's interesting to me that missing from the collection is one crucial person: Joyce Carol Oates. But the book is so good and important for the genre I didn't want to criticize it too much.

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    2. If I remember correctly, Weinman acknowledges the omission of Oates in the introduction, saying basically that she wished she could have included her but rights & perms got in the way.

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    3. You're right, Levi. I went back and checked it out in her intro and she explains why Oates, Ruth Rendell and Mary Higgins Clark were not included. It had more to do with a cut off date of the late 1970s and that those excluded women wrote the bulk of their short "domestic suspense" crime fiction in the 1980s.

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  2. My review of this book is now even more overdue than your book! Certainly this is a book that needed to eb done, even though the Millar and the Caspary both appeared in Crippen & Landru volumes.

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  3. These authors aren't forgotten by me, either, and many of them are my among my favorites. This is a must-have.

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  4. Boy, this sounds great! Another one to add to the list.

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  5. I have read very few of these authors as I am not particularly fond of domestic suspense
    regardless of the quality of the stories.

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  6. Sounds like a good read and worth checking out. For some reason most of the better books I've read came from this site. :)

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    1. Most of them? Not ALL of them? I'm slipping I guess. ; ^ ) Thanks for the compliment, Tim.

      I get some good ideas of what to read from your blog, too. I have BAXTER lined up for next month!

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  7. A very good and fair review of a very good collection.

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