Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pulp Education #4 -- These forgotten female crime writers had no time for femme fatales or dowdy housewives

by Brigit Katz

When detective Philip Marlowe first encounters Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s beloved 1939 detective novel, she has draped herself provocatively over a sofa, beautiful legs on full display. Marlowe immediately sizes her up as “trouble.” Vivian’s husband has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and she asks far too many questions for Marlowe’s liking. “I don’t mind your showing me your legs,” he says. “They’re swell legs, and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance … But don’t waste your time trying to cross examine me.”

This framing of the genders — dastardly dames, inscrutable P.I.s — is typical of classic American crime fiction, which by and large was written by men, about men, for the purpose of reaffirming masculine identity in the wake of two devastating world wars. Starting in the 1920s, the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler pioneered the now-archetypal hardboiled detective, who moved through sordid cityscapes with gruff cynicism and determined solitude. The most interesting women characters inevitably emerged as femme fatales: sultry, dangerous, and never a true match for the detective’s steely resolve.

Many readers may not know that while male giants of the genre were writing about hardened gumshoes and fiery femmes, a slew of female authors were producing rollicking crime fiction that often presented a very different perspective on the genders. These books were well-received in their day, but faded into obscurity as time wore on. Fortunately, a recently published anthology brings the forgotten foremothers of American crime fiction back into the spotlight. Women Crime Writers collects little-known novels that were written by female authors in the 1940s and 50s. The anthology’s origins are, appropriately, rooted in a bit of mystery.

Read the full article: