A few blogs recently have discussed an obscure anthology that was published in 1959. The Lethal Sex was the first anthology from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) to feature all female contributors. Well, apart from the editor – heavens, ladies; that’s a job for a big strong man.
Unlike the Detection Club here in Britain, which was dominated by women, the MWA was dominated by men. The same can be said of the literary marketplace – Christie and Allingham ruled the British marketplace while Chandler and his clones held strong in the States (Highsmith belonging to a different genre by the standards of the day). Even today, many of the names in this book are familiar: Margaret Millar, Miriam Allen deFord, Ursula Curtiss, Anthony Gilbert, Christianna Brand … But there seems to have been less publicity surrounding this volume than other themed collections put out by the MWA at the time.
The bloggers discussing this text have taken a range of perspectives but I think that the only justifiable one to take is horror. Just look at this cover. These writers were at the top of their game, writing stories with more psychological depth and literary nuance than those of their British counterparts. And yet the generically salacious (or salaciously generic?) cover image, the misogynistic description of “lively ladies,” and the absence of any female name on the cover pale in comparison to the male editor’s introduction.
[By the way, let’s compare that cover to another MWA anthology, Dolls Are Murder (1957), a selection of stories about women but written by men – who are all named on the front cover.]
Here are some highlights from the introduction. Remember that this was only 55 years ago.
I wrote imploring letters to eighty-odd female members of the Mystery Writers of America […] Should any man care to give his life a flavor of vivid unreality I suggest he engage in a simultaneous correspondence with eighty women. Eighty female writers! I will say, without critical intent, that a certain percentage of all women are neurotic. A certain percentage of all writers are flamboyantly neurotic. In those cases where the personal and professional neuroses overlap, you can find yourself opening mail that makes your knees buckle.
Naturally, all the contributors to this collection are splendid, stable types, beautifully adjusted to both their femininity and their talent.
[… After a reflection on the pros and cons of sexually harassing his “irrational” contributors …] As you read each [contribution], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman. And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.
She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy. I guess this is a love note to that woman. She is a very special gal. And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere. […] Honestly, girls, I’m not really terrified of you, en masse. This nervous twitch comes from weaving baskets. I have not even touched your titles! Even though some of them are not what I would call apt. In fact, it took supernatural courage to correct a few mistakes in spelling.
This is an exotic banquet I set before you. We have called it The Lethal Sex. I would prefer to think of it as The Modern Man’s Guide and Handbook for Understanding a Creative Woman. Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents… and their savage little minds.
If you know me at all, you will know two things. 1) I find that literally impossible to read. 2) I am not a fan of dismissing problematic shit as a product of its time.
Tellingly, some of these stories were collected in Sarah Weiman’s much later, brilliant and iconic, collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (2013), which is essential reading. Unlike a number of twenty-first century anthologies, eg. Stella Duffy’s equally brilliant Tart Noir (2005), it doesn’t simply call for a new mode of female crime writing but draws on the distinctly “feminine” traditions and their trailblazing creepiness; their absolute relevance. The best possible, and regrettably late, response to the misogynistic netting through which “savage little minds” did incredible things.
List of References
Duffy, Stella & Henderson, Laura (ed.s). Tart Noir: Twenty Shocking New Crime Stories. London, New York: Pan, 2005.
MacDonald, John D. (ed.). The Lethal Sex. New York: Dell, 1959.
Masur, Harold Q. (ed.). Dolls are Murder. New York: Dell, 1957.
Scott, Steve. “The Lethal Sex.” The Trap of Solid Gold: Celebrating the Work of John D. MacDonald. 1 Dec. 2009. Accessed online: http://thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/lethal-sex.html
Weinman, Sarah (ed.). Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From The Trailblazers Of Domestic Suspense. New York: Penguin, 2013.