Contemporary female authors of crime fiction—Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Denise Mina—continue to carry the flag formerly planted by the “Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense”: women like Patricia Highsmith, Vera Caspary and Joyce Harrington. Like the iconic black-and-white films of the Fifties featuring strong female characters, these selected stories, compiled by Sarah Weinman, established a rich and important tradition. Plunging into the dark heart of passion and murder about women and for women, domestic harmony is given a more sinister spin, motherhood tainted by murder, envy, greed and ambition no longer the purview of men.
Not limited to American writers, the explosion of crime dramas from a female perspective crosses international boundaries to England, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden—wherever a woman writer is inspired to tell her tale. These early purveyors of crime fiction penned by the fairer sex poke and prod contemporary society, preparing the soil for future generations of their fearless sisters, exposing the hypocrisies of modern life (‘50s), the dark prejudices of male repression and their ugly stepchildren, helpless, infantilized women. Gradually, male domination of the genre is forced to concede territory, ground sown early on by some of the feminist authors chosen for this collection, though there are more yet to be explored. To read (and appreciate) these stories is to step back in time, to place the female experience in the proper context long before the bounty of its current popularity.
The evolution of the genre takes shape as Weinman explores crime fiction post-WWII in her Introduction: the fourteen authors represented in this anthology take their cues from the grist of “women’s issues,” early “domestic suspense” even more chilling for the origin of its subject matter: the fault lines that run through putative happy families; the cracks in the foundation of our concepts of our most revered caretakers; wives, mothers, sisters harboring deadly intentions. Each selection prefaced by Weinman’s inclusion of history and relevant details, the stories are set in earlier times, when women’s roles are far more restrictive. These tales assume a subtle sense of menace, the odd dissonance of flawed character, families oblivious to signs of trouble, all the more macabre for the naiveté with which the world perceives the nascent monsters among us. No sudden violence, barrage of offensive language here. No need. In the end, the acts are just as deadly.
Read these deceptively simple stories, let them slide past the barriers of conventional prejudice to scenes of domestic harmony where a “smile like that of a saint settled on her mouth” (Patricia Highsmith), or “It would have been a shame to spoil the beauty of her patterns with superfluous colors and untidy stains” (Joyce Harrington). These subtle deviants present the face of innocence to the world while hiding murderous intentions, unsuspected, silent perpetrators of death with the faces of innocence, all the more chilling for society’s inability to separate the female gender from the deadly inclinations lurking in the human heart. The early trailblazers have the courage to challenge the norm, to strike a deadly blow for equality in all things, even murder. This volume celebrates the women of vision who claim the territory of crime fiction with subtle yet unmistakable strength. Evil lurks behind a gentle touch: the ministrations of a long-suffering wife, the spinster daughter who watches the children, the female psyche unmasked.