“Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives”

Troubled Daughters“The Heroine” rocks. It’s a Patricia Highsmith gem—dark and warped. There’s a genuine shudder at the end. It’s pure Highsmith, so matter-of fact. An odd au pair with her own odd ideas about how best to demonstrate her worth. “No lights shone at any of the windows, but if they had, Lucille would not have been deterred. She would not have been deterred had Mr. Christiansen himself been standing there by the fountain, for probably she would not have seen him. And if she had, was she not about to do a noble thing?”

As the anthology starter for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, the Highsmith entry is a perfect choice. It’s sharp and efficient, a classic of psychological suspense.

The anthology seeks to shine a light on the female writers from decades ago who led to today’s “burgeoning renaissance” (editor Sarah Weinman’s term) of female crime writers, from Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman to Tana French, Louise Penny and Sophie Hannah.

“In marveling at these women,” writes Weinman, “I began to wonder about who came before them … When I reached back further in time I discovered, much to my surprise, an entire generation of female crime writers who have faded from view. Their work spanned a period of three decades, from the early 1940s through the mid-1970s.”

Weinman’s analysis of how these 14 authors fit into a post-World War II aesthetic is well-argued and interesting to read. You’ll likely finish her introduction with some more authors to add to your list. Weinman is a crime fiction enthusiast—to say the least. She previously wrote “Dark Passages,” a monthly online mystery and suspense column for the Los Angeles Times and “The Criminalist,” a monthly online column for the Barnes & Noble Review. She also worked as the Baltimore Sun’s crime fiction columnist. That’s just for starters; she’s a cheerleader of the genre, to say the least.

The stories is this anthology are a mix, with “domestic suspense” the unifying theme. These tales don’t lurk in dark urban alleys, they are the stuff of families and friends and fractures below the surface, of women stepping out or stepping up or breaking the mold of traditional expectations—a great idea for an anthology.

I’m such a Patricia Highsmith fan that I don’t think anything else quite comes close to the level of wickedness in the opening piece, but Joyce Harrington’s “The Purple Shroud” comes darn close. I love a story where the protagonist steps up to take charge of the situation and okay, it never hurts when the protagonist has to drag a dead body around for a few minutes, hours, days. In this story, “Mrs. Moon” takes care of business—and then some—but I still didn’t imagine what she planned to do next. I should have seen it coming, of course, and that’s the beauty of a great short story.

Other stand-outs for me are “Lost Generation” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis (chilling, indeed), “The Splintered Monday” by Charlotte Armstrong and “A Case of Maximum Need,” by Celia Fremlin (again, tough women who rise up—at any age). And “Mortmain,” by Mariam Allen deFord, is a gem—a nifty crime story with a dollop of horror.

Some stories are more low-key and not designed to jolt (at least, not on the Highsmith scale) but all in all, a fine compilation of mostly overlooked writers who deserve a brighter spotlight.

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