Who could resist a book with such a fabulous title and cover? Certainly not me. I am very grateful to Lindsay at Penguin for sending this my way, as this is a marvellous collection of short stories by female suspense writers who were popular in the early to mid 20th century, but have now fallen largely out of favour and print. What is so intriguing about these writers is that they form a sub genre called ‘domestic suspense’, as their stories of murder and betrayal all centre around crimes committed in ordinary suburban homes by ordinary suburban people. These are not tales of mob gangsters or supernatural happenings, but explorations of the deeds normal people are capable of when their safe, everyday existence is threatened. The settings of these stories makes them even more chilling; who could imagine a murder in a spotless, checkered linoleum floored kitchen? Who could predict that a stay at home mum wearing a floral cotton dress could bludgeon someone to death? The uncanny juxtaposition of the familiar surroundings of domesticity with the horror of evil, often premeditated crime, makes these incredibly effective at unsettling the reader, and I loved the psychological complexity of these women’s writing and their ability to turn the reader’s expectations entirely on their head.
Vera Caspary’s Sugar and Spice is outstanding; it tells the story of two cousins, one beautiful and poor, one ugly and rich, and their competitive upbringing and early adulthoods. When both fall in love with the same man, there is a surprise coming that I certainly didn’t see on the horizon. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Stranger in the Car is full of unexpected twists and turns, and is an intriguing portrayal of how far we will go to protect the reputation we hold in our social circles. I very much enjoyed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Splintered Monday; what upset me the most is that I actually sympathised with the murderer far more than anyone else! All are not equal, of course, as is always the case in short story collections. There are some that are a little weaker, with the twists failing to pack a punch. Margaret Millar’s The People Across The Canyon had me on the edge of my seat until its conclusion, which was too unreal to be truly terrifying, and Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home lacked plausibility, which was a shame.
However, overall, this is a superb compendium of stories that kept me up until the wee hours, desperate for more. My only real criticism is that this collection could have been twice as long. Whenever I go into my favourite book shop on the Charing Cross Road, I always see shelves and shelves of battered ‘Crime Classic’ hardbacks, usually written by women, and usually with amazing titles like ‘Black Lipstick’ and ‘A Girl Called Trouble’. Surely there must be hundreds and hundreds of stories written by these women that are worth republishing? I love suspense fiction, and I don’t read enough of it. Persephone have republished two excellent suspense novels; The Blank Wall and The Expendable Man, but I haven’t seen much else in this genre being brought back into print. Why not, I wonder? I am going to be busy searching for books by the authors in this volume over the next few months, and I’m keen to hear any suggestions people may have for other novelists like this to try. Having finally caught up on my unwatched episodes of Sherlock, I’m in the mood for mystery!