Though Gone Girl and Girl on the Train are some of today’s bestsellers, there was a time when crime fiction was considered a man’s genre, dominated by writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Women appeared as characters in these novels as the femme fatale, a seductive woman who ultimately brings about the downfall of any man she comes in contact with. But in the 1940s and 1950s there were female crime writers publishing (often pseudonymously) provocative novels of the female experience—in particular the anxieties of pre-and-post war America.
Some of the women here embraced the moniker of genre writer, while others did not. Ultimately the fiction they produced acted as an endless source of inspiration for stage and screen, and would go on to influence an entire generation of genre writing to come. While they may not have been “femme fatales” in the classic sense of the word, their work broke down barriers. Thanks to them, crime fiction was no longer a man’s world. Here are seven of their most compelling works.
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Caspary, who was already the successful author of five novels, finished her novel Laura in December 1941. By 1942 she was working on a dramatization that she would eventually sell to 20th Century Fox for a paltry $5. It would become one of the studio’s most successful films, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. “My agent wrote one of the worst contracts ever written. I signed it as carelessly as a five-dollar check,” Caspary later said. “As I would be reminded in restaurants and parking lots, I had signed away a million dollars.”
Recommended read: Laura
Caspary’s 1943 novel turned the femme fatale trope on its head. Though the eponymous character of Laura might look and sound like a femme fatale, in many ways she is anything but. At first we get to know the dead Laura through the voices of the three men who supposedly knew her best. Which one had the motive to kill her? Or did they all? As aforementioned, Laura was adapted into a film by Otto Preminger in 1944, making it one of the most well-known and successful noir romances of all time.
Dorothy B. Hughes
Unlike Caspary, who shirked the genre writer label, Hughes, who received her journalism degree from the University of Missouri in 1924, embraced the suspense genre, publishing 17 novels in her lifetime. Three of those were made into successful movies: The Fallen Sparrow, In a Lonely Place (which starred none other than Humphrey Bogart), and Ride the Pink Horse. Later in life she retired from fiction writing to care for her ailing mother and her grandchildren, but continued to review crime and mystery titles for the Los Angeles Times.
Recommended read: Ride the Pink Horse
Published in 1946, this novel tells the story of a senator’s secretary who finds himself at the center of a blackmail plot in New Mexico. It was made into a film starring Robert Montgomery in 1947 and a television movie The Hanged Man in 1964.
Michigan born writer Charlotte Armstrong graduated from Barnard College in 1925. After writing ads for The New York Times and publishing four poems in The New Yorker, Armstrong turned her hand to suspense with Amazon, published in 1945. After selling the rights to Hollywood, she was able to move her family to California and continued writing, publishing over 30 novels.
Recommended read: Mischief
This terrifying novel about a nefarious babysitter anticipated the anxiety surrounding women’s struggle both in and out of the home—and the safety of their children. In 1952, the book was adapted into a film called Don't Bother to Knock, starring Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, and Anne Bancroft.
Widely known for the Ripley novels, author Patricia Highsmith is perhaps the most famous writer on this list. Born in Texas and educated in New York, Highsmith got her start writing for comic books and had her big break early. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, launching the young Highsmith into literary superstardom. Her second novel, The Price of Salt, was published under a pseudonym due to its lesbian themes—and was made into a film version just last year, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Recommended read: The Blunderer
Before Highsmith published the first of the Ripley novels, there was The Blunderer, which appeared in 1954. This dark novel tells the story of a man who is accused of murdering his deeply neurotic wife. He even admits to stalking her and wishing she were dead. He meets his match in the cop who will stop at nothing to prove his guilt.
Born in Ohio, Helen Eustis attended Smith College. Her first novel, The Horizontal Man, was inspired by her time at Smith, and won The Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. Another novel, The Fool Killer, was adapted into a film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins in 1965. In addition to her suspense writing, she was also a prolific translator of French literature.
Recommended read: The Horizontal Man
Her only straightforward “crime” novel, The Horizontal Man has more in common with the classic whodunits of Agatha Christie, when a young student confesses to the crime of murdering her English professor. But one of her classmates doubts her confession and takes it upon herself to solve the murder.
Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Born and bred in New York, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding attended several finishing schools and started her writing career as the author of romance novels. Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, she turned to suspense, eventually publishing 17 detective novels.
Recommended reading: The Blank Wall
Published in 1947, this novel tells the story of a housewife locked in battle of blackmail and murder behind the facade of a woman awaiting her husband’s return from World War II. Raymond Chandler called Sanxay Holding “the top suspense writer of the all,” and The Blank Wall was adapted into the films The Reckless Moment (1949), starring Joan Benett and James Mason, and The Deep End (2001), starring Tilda Swinton.
Canadian writer Margaret Millar initially studied music before marrying. While on bed rest for her first pregnancy, she began reading murder mystery novels and thought she could try it herself. Her first book, The Invisible Worm, was published in 1941. During her lifetime she worked as a screenwriter and published non-crime fiction in addition to her favorite genre.
Recommended read: Beast in View
Winner of the Edgar Award, Millar’s 1955 novel Beast in View tells the story of a single thirty-something woman who lives quietly in a hotel, until she starts to receive strange phone calls from someone claiming to be an old school pal … leading her into a world of extortion, and even murder.
For more on female crime writers, check out the Library of America’s excellent two-volume anthology, Women Crime Writers.