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.

"Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Romantic Suspense", edited by Sarah Weinman
Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Romantic Suspense, edited by Sarah Weinman (Penguin, 2013).

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.








Retro Reads: Hardboiled Fiction

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

Image by Joel Kramer. See license here.
shells by Joel Kramer. CC by 2.0.

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
                                                      ― Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, arguably the two biggest names in hardboiled fiction, ushered in the golden age of a new type of detective story when they introduced the world to their cynical, sarcastic antiheroes. More often than not down-at-the-heel, and always hard drinking, the ‘private dicks’ they created were men (and occasionally women) who had seen enough of the world to know they couldn’t change it. Unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the detectives who populate Chandler and Hammett’s worlds are possessed of no particular genius or skill. When they are able to solve their cases, it is because they are persistent, or they are pissed off, or sometimes they just need the money.

Sometimes, they even do the right thing just because it is right.

In hardboiled fiction, the characters – good and bad – indulge in wholesale violence, and the heroes are prone to casual sex and strong language. They are insightful, yet sardonic narrators, and aren’t shy about voicing their observations to crime bosses, crooked cops, and dizzy dames. And just in case we doubted their toughness – their ‘hardboiled’ essence – there’s almost always a femme fatale waiting in the wings to be tangled with.

The genesis of the genre is relatively straightforward – in the beginning, there was Carroll John Daly. Daly’s work was published in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s, and often featured recurring character Race Williams. Though Daly is the lesser-known predecessor of Hammett and Chandler, he has been credited with producing the first-ever hardboiled private eye story, published in 1923 to beat out Hammett by a matter of months. At, Stephen Mertz argues In Defense of Carroll John Daly that Daly’s Race Williams was no less influential than Hammett’s Contintental Op, and was a staple of pulp magazines well into the 50s.

Fast on Daly’s heels came Hammett in the 1930s with his beloved Sam Spade, star of The Maltese Falcon, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Spade was immortalized on screen by Humphrey Bogart in 1941, and Nick and Nora became the foundation of the recurring literary and cinematic trope of romantically involved partners-in-crime (detection). Though Hammett never wrote another novel starring the couple, he did pen two of the five sequels starring the duo that were adapted to film.

Raymond Chandler styled himself a detective writer in the late 30s, after losing his job to the Depression, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. His iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe, was a “lonely, honest, wisecracking, poetic, worldweary modern knight” (see Mertz, above), who, along with the others, advanced the modern archetype of the troubled, solitary avenger. Their influence is seen in characters such as the Shadow of the 30s, who asked “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”, to Rorschack of Watchmen fame in the 80s and 00s.

The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.
The Last Cop Out by Brendan Riley. See license here.

Though the heyday of hardboiled fiction is considered to have been the 30s to 50s, authors in every subsequent decade have imitated and paid homage to the early masters of the style, and modern incarnations of the hardboiled P.I. can be found under the imprint of Hard Case Crime, founded in 2004. Though the imprint’s covers are substantially more tame than Mickey Spillane’s 1973 The Last Cop Out, they stay true to the tough-guy, underworld feel of the ‘originals’, and have graced the work of mega best-seller Stephen King and one of my own personal favorites, Donald E. Westlake.

The modern hardboiled canon has also shifted to create room for female-authored work like Sue Grafton‘s ‘alphabet’ series, starring female P.I. Kinsey Millhone. Unfortunately, women authors of hardboiled fiction tend not to be as well known as their male counterparts. Though I haven’t read most of the authors on this list (embarrassingly, I haven’t actually heard of most of them), it looks like a good place to start.

Retro Reads: Vintage romance – the evolution of a genre

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

Message From A Stranger by Marya Mannes (Dell 515, 1951) by Joseph Bremson. See license here.
Message From A Stranger by Marya Mannes (Dell 515, 1951) by Joseph Bremson. CC by 2.0.

Most of us have probably seen this sort of watercolor-foggy, beautiful-people romance cover before. Now a staple at yard sales, used book stores, and grandmothers’ basements, this type of image is characteristic of what comes to mind when we think about category romance publishers – especially the biggest of them all, Harlequin Romance.

What many people would be surprised to discover, though, is that Harlequin wasn’t always in the romance game. In fact, it once published a much more lurid, pulpy type of book, and was responsible for such titles as Pardon My Body: A tough expose of the American Underworld and You’re Lonely When You’re Dead.

vintage harlequin pardon my body

vintage harlequin lonely when dead

harlequin romance pulp art exhibit 1 and 2 by yawper. CC by 2.0.

This sensationalized approach to storytelling would carry over to the romance genre with the publication of what some call the first ‘modern’ romance novel. In 1972, Avon released The Flame and the Flower, which featured the heroine’s forced – ahem – deflowering, and was controversial for its graphic depiction of sex and violence.

While The Flame and the Flower‘s enthusiasm for baring it all raised eyebrows, however, it wasn’t quite a true ‘first’ in the genre – according to Wikipedia, even one of the earliest romance novels, a popular 1740 publication called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded was criticized for its licentiousness. Pamela was revolutionary for its almost exclusive focus on courtship and its narration from the female point of view, telling the story of a young maid imprisoned by her employer. Her virtue is, in the end, rewarded with a marriage proposal from her master, but not until he foils her repeated attempts at escape and tries to rape her .

Post Pamela, the genre brought us Jane Austen’s celebrated (though comparatively tame) romantic comedies in the early 1800s. Although Austen was not a particularly prolific author, her works have permeated our public awareness and inspired countless miniseries, films, spin-offs and parodies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?).

In the 1920s, there was a return to smut with the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (read it for free at Project Gutenburg), which was banned in countries all over the world and was the focus of a storm of obscenity trials across the globe. Georgette Heyer also came onto the scene in the 20s with her extensively researched Regency romances, giving rise to an entire subgenre.

The 1950s gave way to a spate of Harlequins and other mainstream romances featuring modern “career girls” (largely nurses and stewardesses), and on the heels of Avon’s foray into romance with The Flame and the Flower in the 70s, American author Janet Dailey sold her first romance to Harlequin, becoming their first (and at the time, only) American author. Dailey’s books provided an exciting new take on the genre, and readers were eager to read more about heroines who had adventures in the American West, had explicit sex with the hero, and generally did more than sit around waiting to be rescued.

Unfortunately for Dailey, she was discredited in the eyes of many when she was sued by powerhouse author Nora Roberts in 1997 for what turned out to be blatant plagiarism. Dailey passed away in December 2013, and is noted in a Washington Post obituary as a pioneer who left a complicated legacy. La Nora, as she is known to fans, continues to dominate the industry, and with more than 200 books to her name, is one of the most prolific writers in the history of the genre (or any genre).

Today, the genre continues to evolve, with new subgenres such as paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, and romantic science fiction gaining in popularity over the past 15-20 years. The most recent addition to the canon of romance subgenres is New Adult, which focuses on the “growing pains” unique to protagonists in their late teens and early 20s.

Another major shift in the genre is the move by many authors toward self-publishing – but that’s a whole other post!