The Ladies Who Were World-Class Killers

Reading & Writing

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The world of mystery novels is now subdivided into a huge number of categories, ranging from alternative histories to supernatural thrillers, but the film version of ‘Gone Girl’ has reawakened an interest in Domestic Suspense. These are stories which only minimally involve the police, and are often based around marital suspicion and the tensions that exist between wife and husband. The category’s heyday was in the 1950s, but interest has continued to the present day via Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith.

One of its least remembered proponents was Celia Fremlin. She was born at the outbreak of WWI in Kingsbury, Middlesex. Her father’s first name was Heaver, her brother became a nuclear physicist and she moved to Hampstead, from which we might deduce that she was middle-class, and yet she took jobs in domestic service ‘in order to observe the peculiarities of the class structure of our society’. It’s no surprise, therefore, that during WWII she was part of the Mass Observation Society, the project which chronicled the lives of ordinary men and women. She began turning her observations into prose soon after.

Her elegant crime novels centred on stressful domestic situations experienced by women fast running out of options. Fremlin took the sensation novels of the late 19th century and updated them for postwar readers, a trend that was already taking place in America, partially due to a new interest in psychoanalysis. In ‘Appointment With Yesterday’, her 42 year-old heroine, Milly Barnes, is on the run with nothing more than two pounds in her purse and the clothes she’s wearing. What has she done to plunge from a life of luxury to this desperate new existence? We discover the truth at the end, and the result is quite unexpected.

‘The Hours Before Dawn’ won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best new novel, and concerned a stressed-out young housewife with three small children heading for a breakdown, whose sinister new lodger is seemingly hatching a plot against her. In ‘Possession’, the heroine’s daughter becomes engaged to a young man whose mother has an ever-tightening grip on her son. Unfeeling husbands, sinister matriarchs, ungrateful children, untrustworthy neighbours, pregnancy and depression all contributed to novels filled with dark (and often drily comic) forebodings. Fremlin happily lived to 94, a blackly humorous footnote considering that she championed assisted suicide, and her best work is now available once more.

Death & Domesticity

If you look back at past anthologies you’ll find many volumes without a single female voice. Bothered by this imbalance, writer Maura McHugh and I once ran a gender-blind short story competition and discovered that 65% of the winning tales we selected were by previously unpublished women.

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Not all editors were male-centric. Herbert Van Thal’s popular Pan Books of Horror proved that when it came to provoking nightmares, women were every bit as devious as men. Lesser known were John Burke’s ‘Tales of Unease’ volumes, which were published in 1966 and 1969. In the first, Virginia Ironside, journalist and agony aunt, penned the sardonic, Saki-like ‘The Young Squire’. Andrea Newman wrote the controversial novels ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go’ and ‘A Bouquet of Barbed Wire’, a frequent theme being the disintegration of the family unit, and her story ‘Such a Good Idea’ is one of the simplest revenge tales ever written. In it, Sarah, the protagonist, turns a key in a lock and changes her life forever.

A lock of another kind sparks the plot of Penelope Mortimer’s ‘The Skylight’, in which a mother and son find themselves shut out of a French summer home as it starts to grow dark. Ms Mortimer co-wrote Otto Preminger’s ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ and knew a thing or two about domestic suspense. The prolific Elizabeth Lemarchand, the mistress of misdirection, unfolds a terrific scenario in ‘Time To Be Going’, and never have drawers full of blankets appeared so ominous. In Christine Brook-Rose’s ‘Red Rubber Gloves’ the titular household items become instruments of death viewed by a neighbour, and in Cressida Lindsay’s ‘Watch Your Step’ a drunken night out tips one young couple’s life out of balance when they discover their room the wrong way around.

These authors were also able to locate unease in the most mundane domestic settings. Their shortform fictions were set in ordinary homes, and resonated with many wives who found themselves back behind the ironing board after a war in which they performed tasks equal to men. Consequently the tales often have a claustrophobic, trapped atmosphere in which heroines are treated dismissively by husbands. Several authors have now been rescued from obscurity in the excellent collection ‘Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives’, edited by Sarah Weinman, which collects fourteen psychologically disturbing tales from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The Lethal Sex

There’s another paperback, published in 1959 by Dell, displaying a coquettish girl, almost naked, beneath the caption; ’14 lively ladies spin 14 torrid tales of mayhem and murder – The Lethal Sex’. Like the collection above, these stories by female members of the Mystery Writers of America are edited by a man, John D Macdonald.

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There’s something hidden and slightly apologetic about some of these lost lethal ladies, especially in the case of Nedra Tyre. In her earliest photograph she’s elfin, angelic, fragile, with a beatific smile, yet there’s a strange steeliness in her eyes. Born 1912 the soft-spoken Georgian graduated with a thesis on Mrs Gaskell, and wrote seven novels and over 40 short stories, most of which were published by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

She worked as a librarian, clerk, advertising copywriter, sociologist and charity worker for very little reward. She read avidly, stored books in her oven, would only eat in restaurants with linen napkins, lived austerely, took care of a sick mother, travelled alone, liked teddy bears – the only colour photograph I could find shows her and a bear in matching bowler hats and spectacles. She believed you should write 15 minutes every day, knowing that if you managed that you’d soon start writing longer.

In a time when female writers were condescended to as ‘lady authors’ she penned mystery-suspense tales that have an uncomfortable, even dangerous edge of truth. In a recently recovered short story, ‘A Nice Place To Stay’, the heroine, a saintly girl who always puts others first and asks for little in return, wants nothing more than somewhere nice to rest her head when her work is done. Treated with disdain and even hatred, she discovers that life can be crueller still when she finally gets the little room she always dreamed of – a jail cell. But beneath the concise, compassionate storytelling something else is going on. Looking back at Ms Tyre’s eyes, you start to wonder if you’ve been lied to. The story’s narrator may be more than just unreliable – she may be mad.

Her best novel is ‘Death of an Intruder’, an escalating battle of wills between two women that leads to murder. Ms Tyre abandoned writing after becoming completely deaf, and concentrated on charity work. She said; ‘Almost everything defeats me and everything amazes me.’

5 comments on “The Ladies Who Were World-Class Killers”

  1. Vivienne says:

    If only there was a secondhand bookshop brave enough to have a ‘Lethal Sex’ section!

  2. Alan Morgan says:

    I was one of the 35%. There was a lot of good stuff in that project.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    It’s always important to know about the writers who started things. I’ll have to ask our local second hand book seller if he’ll start a Lethal Sex section.
    Off topic – but important. How are you making out with your eyes, Chris?

  4. Iain says:

    Arrgh – that More Tales of Unease cover! I first came across it at the mobile library outside my primary school and it was like a cold electric shock through the eyes. I then saw it in a box behind the counter at another library and got the same reaction. It literally took me decades to be able to pick up the book to read it.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Your getting as bad as John on Pretty Sinister site, now I need to add more books to my wish list, at least it’s not as big as my to read stack.

    I agree the John Burke cover is just wrong in so many ways.

    Wayne.

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