Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s

Laura, Vera Caspary | The Horizontal Man, Helen Eustis | In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes | The Blank Wall, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Fiction
(hardcover)
Library of America
September 1, 2015
9781598534306
(ebook)
9781598534566
This collection, the first of a two-volume omnibus, presents four classics of the 1940s overdue for fresh attention. Anticipating the “domestic suspense” novels of recent years, these four gripping tales explore the terrors of the mind and of family life, of split personality and conflicted sexual identity.

Women writers have always had a central place in American crime writing, although one wouldn’t know it for all the attention focused on the men of the hardboiled school. This collection, the first of a two-volume omnibus, presents four classics of the 1940s overdue for fresh attention. Anticipating the “domestic suspense” novels of recent years, these four gripping tales explore the terrors of the mind and of family life, of split personality and conflicted sexual identity.

Vera Caspary’s Laura (1943) begins with the investigation into a young woman’s murder and blossoms into a complex study, told from multiple viewpoints, of the pressures confronted by a career woman seeking to lead an independent life. Source of the celebrated film by Otto Preminger, Caspary’s novel has depths and surprises of its own. As much a novel of manners as of mystery, it remains a superb evocation of a vanished Manhattan.

Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man (1946) won an Edgar Award for best first novel and continues to fascinate as a singular mixture of detection, satire, and psychological portraiture. A poet on the faculty of an Ivy League school (modeled on Eustis’s alma mater, Smith College) is found murdered, setting off ripple effects of anxiety, suspicion, and panic in the hothouse atmosphere of an English department rife with talk of Freud and Kafka.

With In a Lonely Place (1947), Dorothy B. Hughes created one of the first full-scale literary portraits of a serial murderer. The streets of Los Angeles become a setting for random killings, and Hughes ventures, with unblinking exactness, into the mind of the killer. In the process she conjures up a potent mood of postwar dread and lingering trauma.

Raymond Chandler called Elisabeth Sanxay Holding “the top suspense writer of them all.” In The Blank Wall (1947) she constructs a ferociously taut drama around the plight of a wartime housewife forced beyond the limits of her sheltered domestic world in order to protect her family. The barely perceptible constraints of an ordinary suburban life become a course of obstacles that she must dodge with the determination of a spy or criminal.

Psychologically subtle, socially observant, and breathlessly suspenseful, these four spellbinding novels recapture a crucial strain of American crime writing.

Visit the companion website for more on these works and writers, including jacket art and photographs, chronologies of crime novels by women and movie adaptations, and new appreciations by Megan Abbott, Charles Finch, Laura Lippman, Sara Paretsky, Lisa Scottoline, Karin Slaughter, Duane Swierczynski, and Lisa Unger.


This Library of America series edition is printed on acid-free paper and features Smyth-sewn binding, a full cloth cover, and a ribbon marker.

Praise for Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s

“Gripping. . . . Glimpses into Nabokov’s process will tantalize die-hard fans, and true crime aficionados will relish Weinman’s assiduous reporting.””
“A riveting blend of true crime, historical investigation, and literary analysis, Sarah Weinman adds another dimension to this already complicated context.””
– Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed
“Heartbreaking and sobering.””
– New York Daily News
A long-overdue tribute to the trailblazers of psychological suspense”
– Sue Grafton