Retro Reads: Domestic Suspense

Retro Reads is a series of posts highlighting the best, most interesting, and most hilarious trends of the fiction of yesteryear.

I’m halfway through the book pictured at left, and I have to say – It. Is. Brilliant. The introduction from editor Sarah Weinman is informative, engrossing, and entertaining, and the stories chosen for the book proper are no less so. As advertised, this collection educates the reader about the true “trailblazers of domestic suspense”, women who paved the way for books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl“2012’s most popular and critically acclaimed suspense novel” (Weinman, p.xv).

While I’m a dedicated devotee of the male hardboiled “greats”, I couldn’t be more thrilled to discover an entire generation of female crime writers whose careers spanned the same heyday, just waiting for me to discover them. As I’ve written here before, there’s certainly no shortage of women crime writers – including hardboiled writers – but many of us are criminally ignorant of their existence. With this spectacular collection, Weinman is helping to remedy that.

So what exactly is domestic suspense, and what makes it different from regular suspense?

Domestic suspense, Weinman explains, is more nuanced than a lot of male-authored, male-dominated crime fiction. It is less concerned with “writing wrongs and playing by rules”, and more interested in blurring boundaries. It’s about ordinary people – particularly women – “trying to make sense of a disordered world with small[er] stakes” (Weinman, p.xviii).*

Yes, the characters are concerned with crime, but they’re concerned with it insofar as it affects their friendships, marriages, and inner selves. Which is not to say that their concerns are small or petty – in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, female protagonists are confronted with (and are the perpetrators of) thefts, murders, betrayals and sundry other crimes, committed for reasons as varied and conflicted as any motivation found in Chandler or Hammett.

At the time the stories in this collection were written, women were facing a changing world, shaped by WWII and its aftermath, much as we are shaped by modern conflicts and an evolving society today. And that’s what makes domestic suspense so relevant – so keenly, thoroughly modern – despite the now-retro, sometimes quaint settings and dialogue of the stories featured in the anthology.

As Paula L. Woods says in her L.A. Times review of the book, for many readers it is the psychological complexity of domestic suspense that sets apart stories like those in Weinman’s collection and novels like Flynn’s Gone Girl. The twists and turns are more real, more relevant to our daily lives, as they “extrapolat[e] commonplace fears about safety of children or marital infidelity into compelling fiction”.

In one of my favorite stories from Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Nedra Tyre’s “A Nice Place to Stay” paints a picture of a woman whose entire existence has been categorized by poverty and unfairness, but who still wants only the titular nice place to stay. Relegated by life to the role of a constant domestic, the protagonist eventually finds her ideal place, but as Weinman points out in the introduction to the story, “a nice place to stay” can mean very different things to different people.

For interviews, book reviews, author bios, articles and more on the subject of domestic suspense, check out the website for Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

 

* I don’t actually agree that the stakes are smaller for most of the women in these stories, or in modern domestic suspense – to me, it feels like this statement relegates women’s concerns to a “lesser” sphere than men’s – but the point is arguable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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