Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives
 edited by Sarah Weinman

Penguin Books, 354 pages, paperback, $16.00

(This is a guest review by author Chuck Caruso)

Just out this week, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives edited by Sarah Weinman, offers a well-researched treasure trove of short stories by the brilliant women who defined the psychological thriller during the mid-century.  This collection features fourteen gems of suspense from Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, as well as stories by less familiar authors like Vera Caspary, most remembered for penning the novel Laura, which inspired the famous film.

Of the authors included here, Shirley Jackson will probably ring the most bells of recognition, though novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle skew a bit more toward horror than mystery.  Jackson’s story in this collection shows her in top form, weaving an uncanny tale of how deceptive appearances can be and how we always seem to want what we haven’t got. Dorothy B. Hughes is now mostly remembered for In a Lonely Place, adapted to screen as a Bogart vehicle, but her seemingly light-hearted “Everybody Needs a Mink” stands out as perhaps the most troubling tale in a collection full of clever turns and well-executed twist endings.  I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

This anthology also offers a few remarkable surprises by forgotten authors.  I’d never even heard of Nedra Tyre but her dark tale of poverty and despair “A Nice Place to Stay” has me determined to seek out more of her stories.  Miriam Allen Deford was a new name to me as well, but “Mortmain” presents a compellingly creepy story about a criminal-minded nurse caring for elderly patients.  It’s no surprise that Joyce Harrington’s brilliant yarn “A Purple Shroud” won her the Edgar Award for Best Short Story in 1973.  She’s another of these authors whose work I plan to pursue.

Yet another favorite of mine in this collection was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” by Helen Nielsen, whose Sing Me A Murder I was first pleased to encounter as a paperback reissue from Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard imprint in the 80’s.  Though it only reprinted a few works by women, Gifford’s project exposed a new generation of readers to important works that might otherwise have been entirely forgotten.

As such, noted crime fiction maven Sarah Weinman has done important work in editing this retrospective anthology.  With this book, she provides a useful corrective by heightening awareness among contemporary readers of crime and suspense that the women writing such great fiction today are building upon the work of a previous generation.  Weinman gets it exactly right with the pitch that she says convinced Penguin to publish this collection:  “If you loved Gone Girl, here’s an entire generation of writers who helped make that book possible, and who deserve to be rescued from the shadows.”

Despite its historical approach, this is no stuffy academic anthology.  These stories still have enough life in them to thrill and surprise.  We owe Weinman a debt of gratitude for finding these stories and helping see them back into print.  Here’s hoping that collections like this not only revive interest in Highsmith, Hughes, and the rest of their generation, but also help them to continue inspiring future generations of young women.  They could certainly do worse than to follow in the footsteps of these amazing writers.  And mystery readers who love short stories couldn’t do better than to pick up a copy of Weinman’s expertly curated Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

Chuck Caruso is a Portland writer (and friend of MBTB) whose latest short story appeared in the anthology Kwik Krimes, released in August 2013.
Follow him on Twitter: @jcdarkly.

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