State of the Art

‘Women Crime Writers’ revives many a forgotten masterwork

When I first heard about the Library of America’s reissues of classics, I expected reams of Twain, Bellow and Wharton, interspersed with lesser lights such as William Dean Howells and Sarah Orne Jewett. Of late, however, the Library has done a terrific job of resurrecting crime novelists from the previous century.

I own volumes devoted to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Elmore Leonard, who produced some of the best crime fiction from 1930 to 1980. I also bought the anthologies “American Noir of the 1930s and ’40s” and “American Noir of the 1950s,” mostly to get the long-out-of-print likes of “Nightmare Alley” and “The Real Cool Killers.”

Now comes the most valuable boxed set so far in this vein: “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ’50s.” Your tastes will determine whether Dorothy B. Hughes’ “In a Lonely Place” and Very Caspary’s “Laura” deserve to stand alongside “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon.” I will tell you both “Lonely” and “Laura” outstrip the less daring movies made from them, though the films remain watchable.

But the real value of this box lies in its revisionist view of history. Many folks under 40 probably think women’s crime fiction sprang out of nowhere in 1977, with the publication of Marcia Muller’s “Edwin of the Iron Shoes.” To be sure, Muller, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and their followers write more traditional mysteries, with clues true and false or suspects trying to outmaneuver detectives.

Yet they took inspiration from their predecessors. Three of these eight novels follow “solve-the-crime” patterns, and all eight of them deal with the often bizarre psychology of criminals. Helen Eustis’ “The Horizontal Man” and Margaret Millar’s “The Beast in View” rely on devices that were new during the postwar period – though they may seem familiar now – and no doubt shocked readers.

Almost all of these books became films or episodes of TV series. Dolores Hitchens’ gripping “Fools’ Gold,” about two punks’ attempts to outwit experienced gangsters and rip off a Las Vegas kingpin, became Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.” Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Blank Wall” – my favorite among these eight books – follows a woman whose husband is fighting in World War II and whose daughter is consorting with a blackmailer, who turns up dead. It became a noir quickie called “The Reckless Moment” in 1949 and the first-rate “The Deep End” in 2001. (Tilda Swinton did her best work as the mother.)

Even the two weaker novels hold up adequately. Patricia Highsmith, the most famous female purveyor of creepy crime fiction, did “The Blunderers,” a story of two murderers whose lives intertwine; it’s not on the level of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” her masterpiece, but that’s in the “American Noir of the 1950s” volume. Charlotte Armstrong, an author for whom I’ve never had much sympathy, dips into the psycho babysitter genre for “Mischief;” a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe played the babysitter in the 1952 “Don’t Bother to Knock,” which I now wish I’d seen.

Sarah Weinman, who edited these volumes, provides helpful notes. Weinman also edited the fine anthology “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense,” which included pieces by Caspary, Armstrong, Millar, Highsmith and Hughes. You can hear her in person if you go to Raleigh for Bouchercon 2015, which runs Oct. 8-11.

I can’t get there, so I’ll be content digging around in the Library of America’s archives. Next up: the anthology by David Goodis, whose “Down There” is in the 1950s American noir collection. I think Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote mysteries with supernatural elements. And I haven’t visited Edgar Allan Poe in quite a while....

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