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Talented & Expendable: American Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s

Book Manuscript in Preparation

About

While a considerable body of criticism as addressed male crime writers, little attention has been paid to women crime novelists.

My critical study is the 1st examination of how these women crime writers used women’s roles in their own novels to subvert the hardboiled narrative’s patriarchal detective, and victimized femme fatale.

I found that women’s roles in crime novels written by women take on an autonomous persona of agency akin to the male protagonist in hardboiled novels written by men.

I conclude that women crime writers shifted the genre away from social commentary about white, working-class men, instead shifting it toward social concerns about the communal welfare of marginalized Americans.

Hardboiled Crime

Literary critics talked about the hardboiled crime novel in relation to male writers’ economic commentary of FDR’s New Deal. Some have argued the hardboiled crime novel creates a democratic ethos that rids society of its urban corruption, while others criticize the genre for contributing to misogynistic overtures that ignore gender inequality in America. However, a prolonged emphasis on the texts of male crime writers has led to a relative neglect of women crime writers. Critics miss how women crime writers of the 1940s and 50s shifted the thematic concerns of crime fiction towards marginalized Americans.

Women Writers

Talented and Expendable formulates a new way of debating hardboiled crime fiction by considering how the genre was revised by women writers in the 1940s and 50s. In chapters on five female genre writers, this study carries out close reading of novels that revised the victimized femme fatales of hardboiled fiction or satirized the aggressive virility of the hardboiled detective. Personas in crime novels written by women are utilized to comment on taboo, divisive social issues relevant to post-WWII America. I conclude that women crime writers of the twentieth century, as opposed to hardboiled male crime writers, create narratives that possess socially conscious themes advocating for communal welfare of marginalized Americans.

The Details

Anita LoosGentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

I examine how feminine personas in the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) and the screenplay Red-Headed Woman (1932) by Anita Loos became autonomous counterparts of the hardboiled male detective. The protagonists of Loos’s texts possess effeminate personas, which allure gullible suitors for economic exploitation. Loos’s independent, attractive women bled into culturally powerful roles depicted by leading Hollywood actresses in Screwball Comedy films (1934-1945).

Vera CasparayLaura by Vera Caspary

I undertake an analysis of Vera Caspary’s Laura (1943) and Bedelia (1945), novels in which feminine personas posit the aggressive masculinity in hardboiled fiction as domestically intrusive. Caspary’s novels revise the femme fatale of hardboiled fiction written by men as well as mock the virility of hardboiled protagonists. Women crime writers like Caspary demonstrate how they challenged their male counterparts in cultural popularity through the success of a novel such as Laura.

Dorothy B. HughesRide the Pink Horse

Dorothy B. Hughes’s novels Ride the Pink Horse (1946) and In a Lonely Place (1947) exemplify social commentaries portraying hardboiled, masculine personas as hypermasculine restrained by autonomous women. I highlight the importance of Hughes’s psychological narratives that reveal male protagonists’ motivations to commit violence. This chapter concludes that Hughes’s criminal narratives about masculine personas of romantic drifters were culturally influential, with each of her novels adapted into seminal Hollywood Film Noirs.

Patricia HighsmithPS

The Price of Salt (1952) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith show each novel’s subversive portrayal of same-sex couples in the early 1950s. Both texts posit the hardboiled detective as a surveilling, intrusive antagonist, representing the larger white, upper class patriarchy of American society. Highsmith reframes marginalized, queer figures from hardboiled crime fiction as subversive protagonists shrewd in their ability to evade patriarchal authorities for their crimes.

Margaret MillarBeast In View Millar

Margaret Millar’s crime novels Beast in View (1955) and A Stranger in My Grave (1960) craft domestic feminine personas of mental illness, which subvert the cultural perception of post-WWII suburban tranquility. These victimized, domestic women are revealed through psychological narratives, commenting on the need for communal welfare of mental illness across social class. Millar refashions the women of hardboiled crime fiction through a lens of psychological realism, arguing young women and wives were victimized by autonomous men exhibiting patriarchal power.

Conclusion

I maintain women crime writers of the 1940s and 50s changed commentaries in crime narratives from economic concerns about white men to the social welfare of marginalized Americans. My study asserts popular genre fiction, specifically crime fiction adapted into Hollywood film, created cultural developments in the social norms of gendered personas. Social commentaries in pulp narratives of the 1940s written by women would go on to influence the cultural values in social movements of the late 60s.

Contact Matthew via email for more information and for interest in publication.

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