Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, edited by Sarah Weinman (Penguin):
After a two-week hiatus, during which I concentrated on assembling The Rap Sheet’s extensive coverage of Elmore Leonard’s death, “Pierce’s Picks” is finally back with several new selections from bookstore shelves. First up is critic-author Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, an anthology of 14 short stories, written by women from the 1940s through the mid-1970s and plucked from the sub-genre of “domestic suspense.” As Weinman related during a recent interview with the Tulsa World, there were a number of female authors turning out mystery and crime stories of “real elegance and economy” during that period, but their work--which frequently dealt with real-life issues, from bad marriages and children seeking their own paths to working women displeased with their jobs--customarily won them less attention than their male counterparts received. Those distaff fictionists may have been “marginalized,” she said, “because they wrote about home and marriage and relationships. And their principal characters were women--wives, spinsters, the elderly. Yet the stories they tell are a real reflection of what was going on in the country at that time.” Not every one of Weinman’s selections here is a standout, but there are several that made me want to explore their author’s other works more closely. Notable among those are Margaret Millar’s Twilight Zone-ish “The People Across the Canyon,” Dorothy B. Hughes’ slight but memorable “Everybody Needs a Mink,” and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s “The Stranger in the Car.” That last yarn is among this collection’s longest, focusing on a conservative businessman whose efforts to deal with trouble only show how little he understands the women in his sphere. Although this book could have used some additional proofreading (it’s odd to see a quality publisher like Penguin allowing so many typos to go uncorrected), it serves as a delightful sampler of what women such as Vera Caspary, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and others accomplished in this field. Use it as a guide to explore the genre further.
* * *Also new and deserving of attention: Sandrine’s Case (Mysterious Press), by Thomas H. Cook, an emotionally and psychologically rich work that builds around a college professor who only remembers how much he loved his wife after he’s accused of murdering her. ... Detroit Shuffle (Minotaur), D.E. Johnson’s fourth mystery--following last year’s Detroit Breakdown--to involve Will Anderson, an amateur sleuth who’s also the son of an early 20th-century Detroit, Michigan, electric-car manufacturer. Will’s efforts here to protect his girlfriend, women’s suffrage supporter Elizabeth Hume, lead him to “bug” the offices of a pro-liquor activist, accuse Elizabeth’s bodyguard of conspiracy to murder, and ally himself with a woman he once thought of as his foremost nemesis. ... Holy Orders (Henry Holt), by Benjamin Black, in which 1950s Dublin pathologist Quirke tries to solve the murder of his daughter’s reporter friend, only to discover that such a quest will pit him against a Catholic Church unwilling to feed its own to the dogs. There’s plenty of character development here, with Quirke fearful that his recent tendency to imagine things may be symptomatic of worsening health, and his daughter exploring an aspect of herself that she never realized existed. Unfortunately, Holy Orders has too much the feel of a transition novel, seeming to have been published in large part simply to introduce themes that we won’t see fully developed until subsequent installments of this series. ... Children of the Revolution (Hodder & Stoughton UK), Peter Robinson’s 21st outing for British Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Here we see Banks and his fellow detectives struggling to solve the case of a 59-year-old college lecturer, Gavin Miller, who plummeted to his death from a disused railway line with £5,000 in his pocket. The key to the solution Banks seeks may lie in Miller’s past, which is chock-a-block with titled figures and more than a few controversies. (Children of the Revolution won’t be released in the States until March 2014). ... And finally The Maid’s Version (Little, Brown), by Daniel Woodrell, which looks closely at people associated with an Ozarks-area dance hall fire in 1928. There are mobsters and violence in these pages, and tragedies that will at least make your heart crack a bit. But the real attraction of The Maid’s Version, as is true of so many other Woodrell novels, is the prose. His observations on the oft-sorry state of human interactions require instant re-reading, and the term “lyrical” hardly suffices to describe his writing style.