Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives ed. Sarah Weinman

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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!

15 comments

  1. It sounds wonderful! I don’t think I’ve ever read anything exactly in this genre, but I like the sound of it. Wouldn’t it be funny if Persephone could have a new little imprint for this genre of book? If there are so many of them, I imagine the new imprint could keep itself busy for ages, and I’d enjoy it a lot.

    1. My favourites in this genre are Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen. I don’t know if they feature in ‘Troubled Daughters,etc’, but they both wrote really stylishly (they were sisters) and are brilliant at bringing menace into ordinary domestic settings, which Curtiss especially describes so well.

  2. This sounds very good indeed and isn’t the cover just wonderful? I don’t know this genre at all but you have really whetted my appetite. Hope you had a lovely summer break – and remember to pace yourself!

    1. Isn’t it? Worth buying for that alone! I hope you’ll give some of these sorts of writers a go, Deborah! Thank you – it’s already a bit of a whirlwind! Summer seems a long time ago!

  3. Some years ago a few classic suspense novels were brought back into print by Pandora, and they turn up in charity shops sometimes – Christianna Brand and some others.

  4. This earned a five-star review at Goodreads from me. I love crime fiction, I adore crime fiction written my women and I workshipped this collection. Isn’t it just perfect? My favourite short story was Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Stranger in the Car because of how the author played with stereotypes and what we believe we know about people just because of their role in the family.

    But, what called my attention was the idea of “domestic suspense” and how underrated it is. Certainly, if you go walking on your own and enter a dark alley something bad is likely to happen, but what about our homes? The fact that things as terrible as those that happen on dark alleys could happen in what we think is a safe, comfortable and familiar place just made the stories better. How can they be forgotten now?

    I’m really glad you loved it! If you find any other collection of novel similar to this (apart from the ones Sarah recommends) please, let me know!

    And a shoutout to Lindsay for sending us the review copies🙂

    1. So glad you loved this too, Elena! I really enjoyed the Sanxay Holding – she is very good. Exactly – this is what makes these stories so fascinating and so chilling. I was quite disturbed by some of them! I wonder why they have slipped under the radar – perhaps not gory enough for today’s slasher lovers?!

      If I discover any more gems, I’ll be sure to shout about them, don’t you worry!

  5. I am getting a list together, yes I am. I loved this stuff when I was in my twenties and just inhaled it. It was all available in libraries back in those days. On the contemporary side, have you read Sue Grafton (A is For Alibi etc) or Deborah Crombie? The female detective in Grafton’s books is herself a lost woman in many ways and one who does not fall into stereotypical female roles. Grafton sort of loses her edge toward the middle of the series but for some time she has been right at the top of her game. Another is Deborah Crombie who writes what at first appear to be traditional British police detective stories, but the female characters are very interesting and well developed.

    As for the “oldies” Margaret Millar, Mignon Eberhart, The Lockridges, Ursula Curtis all come to mind. I need to rack my brain a little more. xo

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