Classic crime novels are gaining a new and younger audience. When you’ve run through the usual suspects like Christie, Allingham, Gardner, or Stout, to name a few, who do you turn to next or do you rereading them again? At the mystery bookshop I own, Chronicles of Crime, I take in a lot of vintage paperbacks. That got me thinking about this column. I’d like to offer some suggestions. Below is a list and small selection of the works of often forgotten female crime writers. Many of their works have also been made into film so you have a lot to explore! Next time, male writers for readers to investigate. Have fun!
- Georgette Heyer
What do mystery and romance have in common? Georgette Heyer. I often hear clients of classic crime fiction say how surprised they are that this Regency Romance writer was also a talented mystery writer. They are classic puzzling country-house Golden Age mysteries! The first book Heyer wrote, The Black Moth (1921), was written for her brother as he convalesced. It wasn’t until 1932 that she wrote her first mystery, Footsteps in the Dark, a stand-alone followed by two different series characters, Chief Inspector Hannasyde and then Superintendent Hemingway along with a few more stand-alones. She wrote twelve mysteries in total until 1953 even though she continued her romance novels. A prolific author she has over forty books to her name.
- Delores Hitchens
Hitchens’ wrote, under her own name and several pseudonyms, a total of forty-five books between 1938 until her death in 1973. A few of her tamer novels featured Miss Rachel Murdock and her cat. Usually her work was dark, verging on pulp. Two of her novels featured Long Beach California PI, Jim Sader. Sleep with Strangers (1955) and another Sader mystery in 1960 entitled Sleep with Slander. Hitchens wrote five railroad mysteries with her second husband, Bert Hitchens, who was a railroad detective, the first was F.O.B. Murder (1955). Fools’ Gold (1958), a tale of juvenile delinquents was dramatized in 1964 as the French film Bande à Part. The Watcher (1959) was adapted for television.
- Virginia Rath
Sherriff Rocky Allan appeared first in Death at Dayton’s Folly in 1935, a mystery series based in California, and appeared in a total of six novels between ’35 and ‘39. Her other series featured amateur sleuths Michael and Valerie Dundas. Michael was a couturier and he met his future wife, who lived with a weal. Based in San Francisco the couple appeared first in The Dark Cavalier (1938) and were in Rath’s last eight books. The Dundas books were conventional whodunits much like the Hammett’s married couple Nick and Nora Charles or Lockridge’s characters, Mr. and Mrs. North. Rath is renowned for her sense of place with respect to her Californian settings. Between the two series she had thirteen novels published. She also wrote under the pseudonym, Theo Durrant.
- Vera Caspary
Caspary wrote eighteen novels, numerous stories, plays, and screenplays. She was involved through her writing in twenty-four movies. The most well-known was Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic noir film Laura based Caspary’s novel (1942) of the same name. Her fiction, often noir, usually closes in on one central character with a small supporting cast. Examples would be: Bedelia (1945) concerns a couple’s relationship; Evvie (1960) features a couple of wild girls in the 1920s; Stranger than Truth (1946) about a writer for a crime digest magazine.
- Dorothy B. Hughes
Hughes completed fourteen works of some of the best noir fiction available, focusing on the concept of evil rather than the crime itself. She was a founding member of the crime writing association, Mystery Writers of America. Her second work The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940) features a female protagonist, hiding under an alias to uncover a murderer from her past. Some of her novels were made into films for example, The Fallen Sparrow (1942), Ride the Pink Horse (1946) directed and starred Robert Montgomery and In a Lonely Place (1947) featured Humphrey Bogart. Her last work of fiction was The Expendable Man (1963).
- Gladys Mitchell
A prolific writer, Mitchell wrote sixty-six novels the first written in 1929, entitled Speedy Death which introduced Mrs. Bradley, her main character in most of her books. She also wrote other mystery fiction under pseudonyms. The BBC filmed some of the Mrs. Bradley works into a series starring Diana Rigg. She also wrote numerous short stories.
- Margaret Millar
Millar wrote twenty-seven books, short stories, half a dozen screenplays, poems, and more. Millar’s protagonists were often women who saw the world through dark eyes. She had a couple of series characters but Millar’s stand-alones are what noir fiction is all about. Fire Will Freeze (1944) is often thought of as her best work. Although Beast in View (1955) will send chills down any reader’s spine. Readers might know about her husband, Ken Millar who wrote under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald.
- Patricia Highsmith
Most people know Highsmith because of her Ripley novels but few are aware of her real body of work. Strangers on a Train (1950) her first suspense novel was an immediate success made into a film the following year by Alfred Hitchcock. Her writing encountered many accolades from crime writing associations world wide, especially in Europe as her writing often captured the essence of film noir. The Blunderer (1954) deals with a husband who wishes his wife was dead and then she is. Her bleak, often depressing works, explore everyday people, and their loves or lack of it. One of Highsmith’s most disturbing books, This Sweet Sickness (1960) billed on the cover of the Pan version as “a compulsive thriller”. Most recently her novel, The Price of Salt (1953) published under the pseudonym Claire Haynes, was adapted for screen (2015) by Todd Haynes entitled Carol. During her lifetime, Highsmith had better success in Europe. For example, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policiére as Best Foreign Mystery translated into French in 1957. Edith’s Diary (1977), featured a woman whose her diary portrays a happy life even though she has had nothing like it.
- Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Holding wrote twenty-five novels — eighteen of them mysteries and many short stories. Miasma (1929) was her first mystery. The Blank Wall (1947) is all about murder, blackmail, and family. It was made into a movie titled The Reckless Moment in 1949 and then in 2001 as The Deep End. Many of her crime novels are considered noir fiction, featuring dysfunctional characters unable to make good decisions. Psychological in their undertone, the character’s fates are so twisted that it is hard at times to not feel sorry for them. Take Net of Cobwebs (1945) a traumatized war vet or The Innocent Mrs. Duff (1946), whose main character is alcoholic Jacob Duff. She was considered by many, including Raymond Chandler, to be one of the best suspense writers of the time.
- Mignon G. Eberhart
Eberhart’s wrote over 50 novels, many short stories, and two plays. Her first novel Patient in Room 18 (1929) featured regular series characters Sarah Keate and Lance O’Leary. While the Patient Slept (1931) won the Scotland Yard Prize. She was often referred to as the American Agatha Christie and was considered to have developed romantic suspense. Eight of her works were adapted into films. The last book, Three Days for Emeralds, was published in 1988. In 1971, she received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
- Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig
Writing 14 novels as Craig Rice, Craig used a variety of pseudonyms as well including Daphne Sanders, George Sanders, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Michael Venning. Her first novel Eight Faces at Three (1939), featured lawyer, John J. Malone and continued for twelve more. Under the pseudonym Daphne Sanders, Rice published the stand-alone To Catch a Thief (1943). She ghost wrote a book for George Sanders and two mysteries for the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. One of her most famed works was Home, Sweet Homicide (1943), about a mystery writer who is also a single mother with three children. The character is trying to wrap up her latest novel while her three children try to solve a murder. Many thought the work was semi-biographical as Craig had three children of her own and always focused on her writing. The novel was made into a film in 1946. She worked for the film industry and was a scriptwriter for the Falcon films. She was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, on January 28, 1946.
- Charlotte Armstrong
Armstrong’s writing often portrayed women’s social situations with psychological undertones, creating neurotic, devious characters. At first seemingly bland, her characters place themselves into other people’s lives often so twisted that events turn murderous. Her first novel Lay on Mac Duff! was published in 1942. She published almost thirty novels. A Dram of Poison (1956), won the Edgar. Many made of her works were turned into films for example Mischief (1950) was made into a film noir entitled Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) starring Marilyn Munroe as a disturbed babysitter. She also wrote television scripts including episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.