Books

08.27.13

The Original Gone Girls: Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Other Forgotten Pioneers of Crime Fiction

Before Gillian Flynn and Tana French, a whole generation of women writers were pioneering psychological thrillers every bit as good as the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Sarah Weinman, editor of the new anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, meets Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the last survivor among the trailblazers of domestic suspense.

On a gloriously sunny July afternoon, I took the bus up from the George Washington Bridge Station to Palisades, New York, to meet one of the mystery genre’s living legends. The point of my visit with Dorothy Salisbury Davis, at an assisted-living facility she’s called home the past three years, was to give her a finished copy, just off the press, of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, the anthology of domestic suspense fiction I edited for Penguin.

Troubled Daughters reprints Davis’s story “Lost Generation”, a politically-tinged tale of school protests and righteous belief with a shocker of an ending that spurred Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine editor Fred Dannay, in a note accompanying the story’s original publication in 1971, to warn readers it was “not a pleasant story” but urged them to read it nonetheless.

The story’s title rang true to me because Davis is part of a lost generation of female suspense writers whose heyday spanned from World War II through the mid-1970s. They did not shy away from murder or squeamish subjects, but also did not, unlike their male counterparts like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett, necessarily revel in violence and the sentimentality of the noble, lone wolf detective or the unflinching doom of the noir anti-hero. They wrote what they felt, how they lived, or what they observed in other people, in the home, in small towns, in the most secretive places.

Davis is 97 years old, the only one of the 14 authors with stories in the anthology who is still alive. I had to meet this sole survivor among the trailblazers of domestic suspense.

Davis and I spent several hours together, over strongly brewed tea and shortbread, on two separate summer occasions, chatting about her career and the other women who, from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s, created some of the best crime fiction ever written in brief moments of respite from raising children, keeping the house in order, or struggling to balance work and life. She met Patricia Highsmith “a few times,” when she lived two miles from Davis, in Snedens Landing, New York. “She went to the church there and sang in the choir,” she said, then lowered her voice to a deep rasp and quipped, “She had to be an alto!” She was great friends with Dorothy B. Hughes, and also met Laura author Vera Caspary “a couple of times,” because Hughes introduced them. She knew Margaret Millar well, and once visited her and her husband Ross Macdonald in Santa Barbara.

Because of her health—she broke her hip last winter, and despite a full recovery, described her mind “wandering more and more”—Davis finds it easier to communicate by letter. She had received one from the North Carolina-based mystery writer Margaret Maron only a few days before my second visit, and Sara Paretsky, author of the V.I. Warshawski private detective novels and a fellow Chicagoan, had come up to see Davis in mid-June.

They did not shy away from murder or squeamish subjects, but also did not, unlike their male counterparts, necessarily revel in violence and the sentimentality of the noble, lone wolf detective.

Davis established her suspense turf—once described by Paretsky as having “an awareness of how easy it is for ordinary people to do nasty and wicked deeds” and for the “richness to her understanding of the human condition that is missing from most contemporary crime fiction”—with her first published novel The Judas Cat (1949). The unnamed Midwestern small town of the book is all but undone with the death of 92-year-old Andy Mattson, alone in his house for days with his cat, who at first seems the inexplicable, likely culprit. When she met with Scribner editor Burroughs Mitchell, he told her the story worked wonderfully well, but “the denouement needed a little work. I nodded my head and said I would change it, right away. After the meeting I went home and looked up what the word meant! Then I understood he’d meant the story’s ending.” She changed it, the book was published, and Scribner would remain Davis’s publisher for the rest of her career.

A Gentle Murderer (1951), Davis’s third novel, was her most commercially successful, with multiple paperback printings and a healthy film rights sale. Centered around the psychological disintegration of a young murderer of women, Davis said the idea for A Gentle Murderer grew out of a man she observed on the subway one afternoon: “He had the look about him of St. Francis in dungarees. He had a package and it looked the shape of a hammer and I thought, ‘He could kill with that.’ It stayed with me. I saw him get off the subway and I followed him. I saw him go into a large church called St. John of the Cross, around 56th Street and 8th Avenue.” The idea stayed with her, taking only a few months to transform into fiction.

Davis occasionally published mainstream fiction, but historical novels like Men of No Property (1956) garnered less favorable notice than her mysteries. (“America wasn’t ready for a history of Irish Independence,” she said in a 2009 interview.) She received multiple Edgar Award nominations for standalones like The Pale Betrayer (1965), God Speed The Night (1968, co-written with screenwriter Jerome Ross), and Where The Dark Streets Go (1973), before capping her novel-writing career with four books featuring Manhattan gossip columnist Julie Hayes, culminating with The Habit of Fear (1987), mixing Julie’s rape at the hands of two teenage thugs and her search for her birth parents in Ireland with the subtle toughness tinged with empathy that was Davis’s literary signature.

The political activism in “Lost Generation,” as it turns out, drew inspiration from Betty Friedan, who in the years before The Feminine Mystique was published was Davis’s neighbor in Piedmont, New York.  Friedan was also responsible for one of Davis’s rare sojourns into journalism, assigning her to profile Manhattan Project physicist Leona Marshall for Ladies Home Journal. Davis flew out to Colorado, and before she could properly introduce herself, Marshall said “I suppose you want to know how I feel about changing diapers while thinking about nuclear energy—No way!” Instead, Davis said with a hearty chuckle, “Marshall gave me a book on particle physics to read overnight.” The article didn’t turn out quite as Friedan planned.

Before embarking on a career as a mystery writer, Davis spent her childhood on a farm in rural Illinois and early adulthood in Chicago, where she worked as a research librarian in the advertising world and later, as an editor for a local magazine, The Merchandiser. Davis was also active in local theater, and met her husband, the character actor Harry Davis, when he was assistant stage manager for the production of The Glass Menagerie that eventually landed on Broadway. They remained together until Harry’s death in 1993, which was, Davis told me, the key reason she stopped writing novels. She hasn’t, however, given up fiction entirely. In 2007, she published the short story “Dies Irae.” Even now, when energy allows, she still writes short vignettes for herself, and for her friends.