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Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of…

Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s: Laura / The…

by Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis (Author), Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (Author), Dorothy B. Hughes (Author), Sarah Weinman (Editor)

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This is a great collection, well worth reading if you are interested in hardboiled detective fiction and want to look beyond the usual "classics".

Warning: these reviews may contain spoilers.

Laura, by Vera Caspary

This book starts off very well, with an excellently rendered voice for newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, describing the circumstances of his dear protégée Laura's murder. However, once the dramatic twist occurs (that Laura was not really murdered, but it was someone who was borrowing her apartment), the book kind of lags a bit. It does pick up toward the last two parts of the book, but the middle was a bit less exciting. Still, it was an enjoyable read and very effectively narrated with multiple perspectives (Waldo, detective Mark McPherson, Laura's fiancé Shelby Carpenter). I would definitely recommend it to fans of pulp fiction or those who can't get their hands on a copy of the movie. Now I have to see the movie! (3.5/5)

The Horizontal Man, by Helen Eustis

A popular English professor at a women's college is murdered, and a young freshman with a crush on him has a breakdown and confesses to his murder. But did she actually kill him? Kate Innes, a senior at the college, and Jack Donelly, a reporter looking for the big scoop, take up the case, while the rest of the college attempts to deal with the aftermath.

This book has a hair-raising atmosphere. I began reading it right before bed one day and had such a terrible nightmare that I had to start reading the book during daylight hours. But most of the suspense is kept to the beginning and the latter third of the book, especially when the angle of the person tormenting another English professor with cruel journal entries is brought in. I could not predict whodunnit and could not read fast enough once the dénouement began. The self-appointed detectives don't actually solve the case, but they're not presented as the stars of the show anyway, so that was not a problem for me.

Because this book was written in the 1940s, there are a couple of wince-inducing elements for modern readers: Jack Donelly's rather brusque courtship of Kate (with occasional needless comments about her weight -- she's usually described as fat or "roly-poly" when she is probably only "less skinny than a beanpole"), and a discussion of then-current psychological thinking on homosexuality and gender identity, particularly with regard to the mix of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics in an individual.

Overall, this is probably worth reading if you pick up the omnibus or find the book on its own in a used-book store. (3.5/5)

In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes

The women of Los Angeles are on edge: there's a serial killer going around late at night, usually attacking women on their own as they wait for a bus or depart one. Unlike the LAPD, the reader knows whodunnit: former airman Dickson "Dix" Steele, who spends his days hanging out in a friend's apartment and allegedly writing a novel. Steele's best friend from his army days is one of the detectives on the case, so Steele takes the opportunity to insert himself into the investigation to see how close they're getting. Will his friend clue in before it's too late?

This is considered an early portrait of a serial killer, and a creepy one it is. But unlike most serial killer novels today, we don't see too much of the actual killing, and the killer does not spend much time meticulously plotting his victims' degradation. In this respect it is "easier" to read, because the violence is not in your face, but leaving the details to the reader's imagination can make them even creepier than what the author could produce. Hughes' writing sends prickles down the spine, and the tension builds as the case progresses. The ending is a sharp shock and winds down abruptly. No "after action, villain analysis" here.

This is a good book to read for anyone interested in classic noir. (4/5)

The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lucia Holly is a mother of two living in what seems to be New York state during the Second World War. Her two children, her father, and the family maid have rented a house in the country while her husband is overseas. Her daughter has become quasi-romantically involved with a cad, but matters become even worse when the cad is killed on their property. How will Lucia deal with the situation and the aftermath when the truth comes out, as it surely must?

The summary of this book nearly made me return the omnibus it appeared in unfinished; it was coming due soon and the summary didn't sound that interesting. But the murder occurs before the second chapter is out and things get stranger and tenser from there. Bonus points for references to Montreal and Quebec, and the less common choice of setting for a WW2-era novel. Lucia felt very real; I appreciated her flashes of resourcefulness while simultaneously rolling my eyes at her fretting over what her children would think of her. The author also managed to fake me out in a couple of locations, doing what I did not expect. Others might be able to predict what happens, but I was pleased to be thwarted in my expectations.

Recommended if you come across it. (4/5)

Rating of the collection as a whole: 3.75 average, rounded up to 4 ( )
  rabbitprincess | Oct 15, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vera Casparyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Eustis, HelenAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Holding, Elisabeth SanxayAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Hughes, Dorothy B.Authormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Weinman, SarahEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Four stories that explore the terrors of family life, personality disorders, and horrors of the mind.

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