The original female crime writers every ‘Gone Girl’ fan should know

While crime fiction novels like Gone Girl maintain their grip on the bestseller lists, the female pioneers of the genre are relatively unknown. Meet Sarah Weinman, crime writer and news editor for Publisher’s Marketplace, whose recent anthology for the Library of America, Women Crime Writers, showcases a range of fantastic female authors from the 1940s and 1950s. We chatted with Weinman about just how these women provided the blueprint for today’s crime writers, and how their genre, domestic suspense, is anything but cozy.

HG: Tell us about the genre, domestic suspense. Did you know what the genre was called before you read it?

Sarah Weinman: I define domestic suspense as novels by women that were published from the dawn of the Second World War to the beginning of Second Wave Feminism and Women’s Liberation that primarily describe women’s experience in a suspense realm. I edited an anthology of short stories a couple of years ago called Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, short stories that were all published between 1943 and 1977. I had been thinking of what I saw as a whole generation as women crime writers who somehow just weren’t being talked about as much as their male counterparts.

And this was a few years ago when I’d been a serious crime reader for a while and wrote crime fiction columns and had a blog. Obviously a lot of my reading was contemporary crime fiction, but I found that there was this incredible assortment of great books by women—not just recently like Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, but also Laura Lippman and SJ Rozan and Alafair Burke, and of course Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller. They were the sounding women of this more recent generation of crime writing, and….they were working sort of as a response to male writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and James M. Caine and Ross Macdonald, who really helped define what we think of as American crime fiction.

All these accolades were being given to the men I just mentioned, and I wondered, “Well, why aren’t we talking about the women? What happened to them?” And as I found in my research, they were critically acclaimed in their time: they were published in hardcover, and you could find reviews of their work not only in The New York Times, which had a dedicated crime fiction columnist, but also in places like The New Yorker or Harper’s. The more that I would look into it, the more I would find that the books they were writing really spoke to me. They really explored what was happening in the society around them, but they were also damn good suspense stories.

Domestic suspense was born out of World War II, when the concerns of women were concentrated around the home—marriage, children, the anxiety of losing it all. How are the concerns of domestic suspense translated into today’s crime fiction writing?

Some things don’t change. Human nature doesn’t change. It hasn’t changed since the dawn of time. You look at books like In a Lonely Place: even though it wouldn’t necessarily fall into pure domestic suspense lines in the same way [as] The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding or Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong does, these books are about people trying to put together a society that they thought existed before the war. After the war, they essentially create new myths that aren’t necessarily there in the first place. And it’s that tension that you really find in some of this work.

The mistake some people might make is to assume that what women were writing crime fiction-wise was cozy or soft-boiled, or just not terribly violent. In fact, they’re really frightening, and in some ways they’re more ruthless. One thing that I found, especially looking at these eight books together, is how refreshingly unsentimental they are. It’s not really about nobility, it’s not really about saving some innocence from another; it’s really about survival, it’s about fear, it’s about just trying to make your way in a society that might not have room for you. It’s trying to make sense of your own mind. All of these things are acting on the internal self while the external is also churning about. It’s pretty scary stuff.

One of my favorites in the collection is The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis. Without giving away too much, it’s a novel that I believe is completely ahead of its time, as it deals with issues of gender identity and homosexuality among its characters. Were you surprised by this? What other domestic suspense writers do you think of as being more ahead of their time?

The “ahead of its time” feel I really think is present in Laura and In a Lonely Place. Laura because Caspary was doing some really interesting things with structure, but most of all [because of] how she deliberately portrayed Laura Hunt. [Laura] is a woman who is probably in her early, possibly mid-thirties. She’s a working woman, she has achieved quite a bit of success, she’s beautiful, she’s sought after, [and] the implication is clear that she is no virgin and [she’s] happy with that. She’s very matter-of-fact about the way that she conducts her life. She doesn’t want people to pity her, she doesn’t want people to judge her. She’s just going to do it on her terms and only her terms. That is a sentiment that makes her dangerous to the men around her. And quite frankly, when women do what they want when they want without asking for anything, [when] they just go about their business and state an opinion or exist, that’s still threatening. And it’s ridiculous and awful and sad to think that in 2015 we still have to have a lot of the same conversations we would have had to have in 1943, but it also shows you that if you look back to the past, you can…see what the roots are but also maybe figure out why we’re still repeating some of the same patterns and mistakes.

What are some of your favorite modern women crime writers? Are there any you read where you think, “A-hah. I know who she’s reading”?

A little too often. I read some really wonderful crime fiction, and every year there are dozens of books that I think are fantastic. And it’s not just women: I read men, I read people of color—wherever there’s good fiction. I want to read it and I want to let people know so that they can read it too. But just off the top of my head, some books that I recently liked were Dead Soon Enough by Steph Cha, which features an Asian American private detective in Los Angeles….Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter—that was a great first book. It just has such a marvelous voice.

I mentioned Laura Lippman—her standalones are always great and her most recent Tess Monahan book that [came] out earlier this year really addresses what it is to be a working mom. That book was called Hush, Hush. I was thinking very specifically about resonances when I was working on the companion website to Women Crime Writers….[There], you can find appreciations of each of the eight novels by contemporary crime writers who I felt would have really good things to say. There was a piece that appeared on the…website, The Life Sentence, that Michael Koryta wrote about Laura. And he made the comparison between Laura and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Once you say it, suddenly it’s right there. But until someone says it, it’s out of reach. I mean, Laura and Amy are both Gone Girls after a fashion. Some of the things obviously happen in a very different manner, but certainly a lot of the scenes are quite similar.

When you write your own crime stories, do you plot out the crime, its culprits, or its clues? Or do you figure it out as you write?

I figure it out as I write. Sometimes I wish I could outline more, but generally, so I think with the story that I just sold, I remember I had a very specific idea, a very specific “what if,” and I was like, “Well, I have to write it down.” When I’m in the grips of a story, I really try hard to stick to about 1,000 words a day. It doesn’t quite always work out—I do have a day job and I do have a lot of commitments, somehow. But when I do try to put my mind to fiction, I ideally try to write about 1,000 words a day because it’s a good groove to get into. Then the next day, I go back and I reread what I have and I see if it worked or what I have to change. I try to keep it pretty loose because I don’t like to be one of those people who just endlessly revises because then I never get anything finished. I just keep going, and I see what the characters are doing and what structure I’m trying to put in, how much backstory I need to have….There were a couple [stories] where I had a pretty good sense of what the ending would be. The issue was whether I would be able to take the risk of writing it the way it should be. And in the stories that have sold in the past, when I did take that risk, well, that’s why they’re published.

You received your M.S. in Forensic Science. How does your degree come into play when you’re writing and editing?

Well, on the one hand, it was a long time ago. It was certainly the reason why I moved to New York for the first time. And I got an excellent education at John Jay College and I learned quite a lot. Some things I don’t think the school intended us to learn, but at the time, I was studying to essentially be a forensic DNA analyst. It sounds interesting, but it involves a lot of repetition and lot of lab work and what I eventually came to realize is that I was much more interested in the bigger picture than I was in the nitty gritty of repetitive analysis.

The labs and I, we had an amicable parting—that’s the way I like to phrase it. I was too busy thinking about cases and thinking about crime as a general topic. At the same time as I was in graduate school, I was also working part time at the late great mystery bookstore, Partners & Crime, in Greenwich Village, which was my initial introduction into the crime fiction as a publishing business. So the education that I was getting was, in many ways, “off the books,” but at the same time I think what that [graduate] program helped instill was discipline. You get up in the morning, you have to show up, you have to meet your deadlines. And in terms of what you need to do for a successful analysis of a particular crime scene, those are all about critical thinking. There’s no better way to write than to have great use of critical thinking. And editing is the same way too. You’re always, in a sense, thinking how are things supposed to work and how are things not quite working. So if you’re sort of at that elevated cognitive level, no matter what the initial impetus for that is, it’s going to help you in whatever field you’re in.

Traditionally, women either inhabit the role of the victim or the “femme fetale” in hardboiled crime novels. The roles women have in domestic suspense seem a lot more complicated. Do you think this ambiguity can account for some of the resistance these writers faced from the publishing industry?

I think a lot of it has to do with what happens to be fashionable at a particular time. [Writers like] Caspary, Hughes, Holding, Eustis, Hitchens, Mullar, and Armstrong…as I said before…sold quite well. Most of the women in Women Crime Writers, they were still in print in the 80s. It’s just that later on, they fell out of print, their re-print publishers went bust, and of course they died, the estates were not necessarily minding the store as much, or there was no real store to mind. It comes down to who comes along to put a group of writers in the proper context. You saw it in the early 2000s with Paula Fox, when Tom Bissell was an editorial assistant at Norton and he had heard about Desperate Characters and convinced his bosses to publish it, and it turned out that Johnathan Franzen was a huge fan. [It] led to much of Fox’s work for adults, finding a new audience and coming back into print.

You see that now with Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. She was published by tiny, tiny presses throughout her career, hardly had an audience, and now thanks to this wonderful hardbound volume that FSG published last month, she hit the Bestseller list. She died in 2004, but she had all these contemporary writers speaking up for her posthumously. And if anything, I think publishing is becoming more receptive to reprints and posthumous publication because what if it turns out that contemporary writers can speak a little bit better and frame it better than what was originally possible at the time? Or current audiences might be ready for something that audiences of twenty, thirty, forty years ago might not have. All I know is that me being at the right place for Women Crime Writers to happen is an incredible and fortuitous stroke of luck. It humbles me every day, and I’m glad to be able to make this happen.

[Image via the Library of America]