Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Women Crime Writers of the 1940s & 1950s. An Interview with editor Sarah Weinman

Sarah is the news editor for Publisher's Marketplace, and the editor of the short story anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. She is also editor of the just released Library of America two volume set  Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s and one of today's top mystery fiction critics.

Welcome Sarah. Thanks for talking with me today.

1) Tell us about the birth of Women Crime Writers. And how did you convince the Library of America that this remarkable collection belonged on bookshelves?

To tell you the truth they didn't need much convincing! A mutual professional acquaintance put me in touch with Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, not long before TROUBLED DAUGHTERS, TWISTED WIVES was published a couple of years ago. We had a meeting and it emerged they had been thinking of doing such a set for some years now, what with the success of their original late-90s CRIME NOVELS OF THE 1930s/40s/50s 2-volume set edited by Robert Polito. One meeting led to the next and by the end of 2013 I was in board to edit what became WOMEN CRIME WRITERS.

2) Many of the novels that appear in this anthology were best sellers in their day, both in print and in movie versions. How did they slip from our memory in the first place?

Writers fall out of fashion or circulation for any number of reasons: changing tastes, changing fortunes, and having a next-generation champion at just the right time. In the 1980s, Barry Gifford, through Vintage Black Lizard, revived many reputations of those who toiled in the trenches of Fawcett Gold Medal and other paperback original publishers of the 1950s and 1960s, and those guys -- David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Peter Rabe, to name a few -- got written up and celebrated. But in parallel was this whole generation of women writing for hardcover publishers and garnering critical acclaim and yet, by not writing stories that fit the Black Lizard mold, they didn't make it in the revival. But now psychological suspense is all the rage, and it's important to recognize those who came before the Gillian Flynns and Paula Hawkins and Laura Lippmans of the world.

3) You've done more than anyone in the mystery field to identify and promote the sub-genre now known as Domestic Suspense. What exactly is Domestic Suspense? And is it a unifying theme in this collection?

I define "domestic suspense" as works written between the onset of World War II and the dawn of second-wave feminism, that delve into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines.

4) Some of the choices you made in Women Crime Writers may have seemed inevitable (for example, The Horizontal Man and Beast In View both won Edgars). But how did you decide what else to include?

The eight volumes were a consensus choice between myself and the Library of America editors, i.e publisher Max Rudin and editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien. We all made lists and read widely but we started with some fairly obvious choices: LAURA by Vera Caspary, IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes, THE BLANK WALL by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. That Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar would be included were also obvious, but finding the right book of theirs took a little time. Eustis I read during the selection process and its influence and critical importance was clear. Dolores Hitchens I also loved but FOOL'S GOLD was not as well known as her later novel SLEEP WITH SLANDER -- published too late for the collection in 1960 -- and a little more difficult to come by. The Highsmith was the final choice, and THE BLUNDERER is a key linchpin because you see all the seeds of what would become THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and other later, important works of hers.

5) The website you created to introduce Women Crime Writers (http://womencrime.loa.org) is packed with essays, information and fascinating trivia about the anthology and the writers. Did you organize it yourself?

Again, the companion website was a total collaborative effort. I solicited the appreciations and wrote an introductory essay, while the LoA team assembled that amazing timeline of ancillary works, images of first edition covers, film posters, and more, and then some. It was months in the making and I'm so pleased at how it turned out, into a real destination that readers can get lost in for hours at a time, for repeat visits.

6) What's next? Is there a possibility we might someday see an anthology of International Women Crime Writers of Domestic Suspense?

I am the type of person who has multiple projects on the go and sees where the chips fall. But as to your anthology idea, it's a good one, and certainly in my wheelhouse.

Thanks again for allowing my readers to re-discover these remarkable women. Good luck with the tour.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Spend a few hours with The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley.

Pity Poor Paddy. His pregnant wife died 2 years ago and he hasn't been the same since. He just walking through life like a zombie. But this half-life, such as it is, just got very precious to him. He's just killed a man.

Sure, it was an accident. A pedestrian jaywalking on a dark rainy night, a brief distraction from the radio, the sound of a thump, and his life is changed. Things go from bad to worse when Paddy realizes who he's killed...Donal Cullen, brother of the most powerful gangster in Ireland. His initial thought was to seek help. But after the shock of his discovery this idea is tossed to the street to be washed into the sewer like the rain. His instinct is to flee, and he follows it. There are no witnesses...he assumes.

He barely has time to gather his wits around him when he is called into the office the next day and given a new assignment, which takes him face to face with Vincent Cullen...the dead man's brother.

Paddy, you see, works for a funeral home. He's been given the job of burying the very man he killed.

Mother said there'd be days like this. If only we had listened.

Not all is bleak for Paddy, however. He's also fallen in love with the daughter of one of his clients. The whirlwind romance feels solid, perhaps a second chance at redemption. But he's pursued by the fear of exposure that haunts his every move. At any moment, someone may point an accusing finger and reveal him a hypocrite and murderer. What's worse, his crime exposes not only him to danger, but the woman he loves, and if Vincent Cullen learns his secret, even the innocent will suffer.

Jeremy Massey has written an amazing debut novel. The Last Four Days Of Paddy Buckley is a thriller and a romance wrapped into a story that I couldn't put down...and neither will you. The writing is like poetry, the characters like the friends you haven't seen for years but can't forget.  After you're done, you'll savor it and want to read it again. Then you'll wonder...when will his next novel come out? And can you wait that long?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Writers Born Today - H.P. Lovecraft

It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, born 125 years ago, on August 20th 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. When he died, he was virtually unknown. Only a few of his stories had been published. Yet today he is recognized as one of the most influential writers of modern times. He knew and befriended many great writers of early science fiction and horror, including August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard. They became known as The Lovecraft Circle, due to Lovecraft's influence on their writing. He corresponded with dozens of writers and edited countless stories without taking credit. Stephen King said he was "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale," and credited Lovecraft with King's interest in horror and the macabre.

As a writer of horror Lovecraft was a genius, and coined the phrase known by even non-Lovecraft fans, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

His health was frail for most of his life. As a result he did not graduate from high school. But he studied on his own and was well read in science and astronomy. He was generous with his editorial assistance to fellow writers, but his own contributions to magazines such as Weird Tales brought him little money. By the time he died of cancer in 1937 he was broke.

After his death, August Derleth worked to maintain Lovecraft's reputation and increase interest among readers. Derleth even started a publishing company named Arkham House (named after a setting in Lovecraft's stories) with the express purpose of publishing Lovecraft's work. His fans bought him a tombstone in his home town of Providence. And in 2005, the Library of America honored him by publishing an edition of his stories, H.P. Lovecraft: Tales.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Finding Jack Lynch is worth playing Truth Or Die.

You don't have to wander the bookshelves or spend hours with Google to find forgotten but great crime writers anymore. Brash Books, a new independent publisher, is doing it for you. One fine example is Jack Lynch.

Truth or Die, the sixth in an eight book series, features California Private Eye Peter Bragg. He's visiting Monterey with his girlfriend when he runs into an old acquaintance, Jo Sommers. Jo's married now, but she can still turn heads, and Bragg's head is ready to spin. So when he learns she's in trouble, he can't resist the temptation to look into it, for old times sake.

Big mistake. Jo's husband has been murdered, and she's the prime suspect.  Instead of running back to Allison, Bragg decides to interview the less than grieving widow. Dr. Sommers was a psychiatrist and many of his patients were ex-navy officers. While the doctor helped them deal with the horrors of war, someone decided to use their secrets for blackmail. That may have gotten Dr. Sommers killed. And Bragg may be next, if he gets too close to the blackmailer.

He has to be wondering what Jo is up to...is she part of the blackmail scheme or an innocent patsy? Was her husband blackmailing his own patients? Is the wife really a black widow? This story will keep you turning the pages to find out and has enough action to keep you entertained along the way.

Lynch has a clean, straightforward prose style that was made popular by Ernest Hemingway, and copied by countless writers. But Lynch is no imitator. He learned to write while working for numerous newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle (Hemingway cut his teeth at the Kansas City Star). They must feed those newspapers reporters something potent, because most of them can write a tight sentence that packs a punch. Lynch was nominated for the Edgar and twice for the Shamus award.

 This is the first of the Bragg novels I've read, but it won't be the last. There's seven more on my list. They should be on yours.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mystery History - Barbara Stanwyck Born Today

It's the birthday of Barbara Stanwyck, born July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn. Her career in entertainment began when she was hired as a chorus girl at the age of 17, for $40 dollars a week, a lot of money at the time. She made it to Hollywood just as talkies began to replace silent films.

No genre was beyond her skill as an actress, whether it was melodrama, comedy or westerns. But she may be best remembered for her work in thrillers, such as Sorry Wrong Number, Crime of PassionWitness To Murder, and Double Indemnity

This last film is considered one of the best noir films ever made. The screenplay was made from the novel by James Cain. Stanwyck was to play the part of Phyllis Dietrichson, an unhappy wife who conspires to murder her husband for the insurance money.  As a femme fatale she had no equal and proved it in this performance. But she almost didn't take the role.

Barbara loved the script when she read it, but was fearful of playing such an evil character at this stage in her career. She was a bonafide Hollywood star and the highest paid actress in America...indeed the highest paid woman in any job. But the director Billy Wilder, who wanted Stanwyck for the part, asked her if she was an actress or a mouse. That put an end to any doubts she had about making the film.

After it was released, critics raved about the movie, and about Stanwyck's performance.  The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Barbara Stanwyck for Best Actress.

"She was as good an actress as I have ever worked with."
                                                                                         - Billy Wilder

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Writers Born Today - Donald Westlake

It's the birthday of Donald Westlake, born July 12, 1933 in Brooklyn.

He started writing in his teens. While working as an usher in a movie theater he would invent different endings for the films in his head. His parents saw him as an architect but he saw himself as a writer.

So he wrote. And collected dozens of rejections. He must have had a tough skin because he kept writing. After 200 rejections his first story was published in a science fiction magazine.

He wrote some more. Along the way he created one of the toughest character in crime fiction, a professional criminal named Parker. Yet Westlake didn't anticipate Parker becoming a series. As Westlake stated "When Bucklyn Moon of Pocket Books said he wanted to publish The Hunter, if I’d help Parker escape the law at the end so I could write more books about him, I was at first very surprised. He was the bad guy in the book."

Eventually, two dozen Parker novels were published.

In addition to his own name, Westlake produced stories and novels using 17 pseudonyms (including a female name, Barbara Wilson). Sometimes his pen names appeared in his fiction as characters. Westlake had a great sense of humor and he used it often in his writing. His most famous pen name was Richard Stark, used to create the Parker novels.

More than a dozen films have been made from his work, starring some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Director Quentin Tarantino has mentioned Westlake's fictional anti-hero Parker as an influence on his films, particularly Reservoir Dogs.

Westlake's screenplay for The Grifters was nominated for an Academy Award, and won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. It was his third Edgar award.  In 1993, MWA made him a Grand Master.

He never made the new York Times best-seller list, but his influence in crime fiction cannot be overstated. Stephen King dedicated his novel Joyland to him. One writer even named his son after one of Westlake's characters...Parker.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Writers Born Today - E. C. Bentley

It's the birthday of Edmuncd Clerihew Bentley, born July 10, 1875 in London. He is considered by many as the father of the modern mystery novel. His stories ushered in the Golden Age of Mystery (generally the period between 1920 and 1945).

After attending Oxford he became a newspaper journalist, but was motivated to write mystery in response to a challenge from his friend G.K. Chesterton. Sherlock Holmes detective novels had been the standard for crime fiction for many years but Bentley felt they were too melodramatic and Holmes was just too perfect. The result of his effort was a mystery that set a new standard for the detective novel...Trent's Last Case.

Published in 1913, it's complex plot twists inspired the writing of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others. The novel presented the reader with three possible outcomes to the mystery. It became an international best seller, and was filmed in several movies, including one by Orson Wells.

You can hear a radio broadcast of the novel at the Radio Detective Story Hour.