The Magazine

Cherchez les Femmes

From the July 5 / July 12, 2004 issue: The American tradition of mystery novels by women.

Jul 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 41 • By JON L. BREEN
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The prominence of women was not limited to the writers. Many, perhaps most, of the prominent mystery editors at mid-century were female: Lee Wright, Marie F. Rodell, Joan Kahn, Isabelle Taylor, Margaret Norton. By the early 1950s, women occupied the mystery reviewing chairs of major newspapers and magazines: Avis de Voto, Lenore Glen Offord, Dorothy B. Hughes, Frances Crane. The major tastemaker was a man--the New York Times Book Review's Anthony Boucher--but he loved books by women.

And what about the characters these women wrote about? Strong independent women were nonstarters in sleuthing roles until the private eyes, policewomen, pathologists, and trouble-prone amateurs of the 1970s and 1980s, right? Wrong. Rue Morgue Press, Tom and Enid Schantz's small Colorado publishing firm, has reprinted several writers of the 1940s who put the lie to such nonsense, most recently two novels by Lucy Cores.

Cores's Painted for the Kill (1943) introduces Toni Ney, physical trainer and jujitsu instructor at a posh Manhattan salon that will remind you of the setting for Claire Boothe Luce's The Women. When a French movie star is murdered during a mudpack treatment, Toni turns amateur sleuth, and her relationship with police detective Torrent parallels that of Butterworth and Gryce half a century earlier. The novel has all the elements of a present-day cozy mystery--specialized background, amateur sleuth with interesting job and independent nature, romantic misunderstandings, humor, suspense set-pieces, even a cat--but is miles better than most of today's product, mainly because of a better sense of pace, a lack of tangential soap-opera complications, and some genuinely clued detection. Corpse de Ballet (1944), with Toni working as a reporter covering a ballet production, is not quite as good, partly because of a tiresome romantic subplot, but it is still well written and deceptively plotted.

MACHO RESENTMENT over women in the workforce is one motivation for the serial strangler who stalks postwar Los Angeles in the 1947 novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of the biggest names in mid-twentieth-century crime fiction, both as reviewer and novelist. Her earlier The Blackbirder (1943) is a pursuit novel with a vivid visual sense and a strong sense of faceless menace, with details of what is going on only gradually revealed. Juliet Marlebone, the American-born daughter of a naturalized French father, has fled wartime Europe with unofficial help. Following the murder in New York of a German acquaintance, she flees to Santa Fe in search of the shadowy title character, an illegal transporter of refugees from Mexico. In the course of her travels, several locales are economically captured, along with the details of wartime conditions on the home front.

The reprinting of these two excellent novels by Feminist Press is most welcome, but the editors do Hughes an unintentional disservice by the series title, "Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp." By any sensible definition, Hughes was not a pulp writer. "Pulp fiction" refers to material written for the pulp-paper magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s and died out in the 1950s. Some commentators, reasonably enough, extend the term to include material written for the digest-sized fiction magazines and paperback-original publishers that took the place of the pulps in the marketplace--or as much of the marketplace as the rise of television left for them. For purposes of the Feminist Press series, though, pulp seems to be a synonym for mass-market paperback, which leads the editors and their consulting scholars into a morass of misunderstanding, sweeping generalizations, and fuzzy thinking.

FOR EXAMPLE, the editors claim in their overall introduction, "authorial name and persona were rarely linked to real-life identity." Pseudonyms were widespread in pulp magazine and paperback staples like mysteries, science fiction, and westerns, but they were not the norm. In her afterword to The Blackbirder, Amy Villarejo calls the early Pocket Books "among the first pulp novels." Pocket Books, one recalls, specialized in cheap reprints of classics. If Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, P.G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jane Austen are now pulp writers, the designation has lost all meaning.

In fact, pulp writer is not a dishonorable label. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the pulps, as did many other distinguished writers of popular fiction in various genres. But most pulp fiction, in its strictest definition, was disposable product, written fast for low rates of pay, without the care or the literary ambition of writings for slick magazines or for book publication. It's no accident that most anthologies of pulp fiction draw on the more respectable and better-edited latter-day digests for most of their material rather than the real pulps. Even in those early pulps, there were women writers--notably Leigh Brackett, who would become a prominent screenwriter best known for her work on The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back.

Regardless, "pulp writer" simply will not do as a description of Dorothy B. Hughes. Her first book was a volume of poetry from Yale University Press, her novels were written for the hardcover book market from the beginning, she was inspired to fiction writing by the very un-pulpish Eric Ambler, and she received respectful reviews from distinguished publications throughout her career.

QUIBBLES about terminology aside, what remains is the work, and it is good to have all these books available to readers. And there are many other unjustly neglected women deserving revival: the wonderful Charlotte Armstrong, for just one example. But there are many men who deserve reprinting as well. There simply isn't any truth in the story that women writers are especially ignored by readers and historians of mystery fiction. Time and forgetfulness are equal-opportunity erasers.

Author of Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon, Jon L. Breen is winner of two Edgar awards.