"The lives of seven mystery writers, women who broke through the barriers in the 1940s and 1950s, are chronicled within the pages of Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s. I will be the first to admit, none of these names were familiar to me. However as I read their bibliographies, many of their books became some of the greatest movies out there. I feel Jeffrey Marks is doing an invaluable service to mystery writers and readers alike. By bringing focus to each of these women, he is also opening the doors for readers to find new books to add to their reading piles, if they can find them first. Atomic Renaissance is a must read for any mystery lover."
—Round Table Reviews, September 2003
"Jeffrey Marks, author of the recent much nominated biography of Craig Rice, gives us this time the profile of a movement. Seven women mystery writers from the '40s and '50s (Margaret Millar, Leslie Ford, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith and Mignon Eberhart) are discussed, with biographical material related in terms of the effect on their work. Marks give the basic plots of many of their better works, but carefully avoids spoilers. This is a book for readers willing to explore the roots of the mystery genre; or perhaps a better metaphor would be the branches that have led to some of the more interesting flowerings of the past two decades. And it meets the most important of criteria for author profiles: it adds to your to-be-read list."
—I Love a Mystery.com, Bill Vande Water
"Mr. Marks has the ability to write attention-grabbing non-fiction. I read the book quite quickly because I really wanted to find out about each of these women. Since I have been reading mysteries since I was 8 years old (1950), and since many of these authors continued to write into the '70s-'90s I am amazed at how few were familiar to me and whose work I had read. I was also surprised at the number books that became a movie with which I was familiar."
—Reviewingtheevidence.com, Martha Hopkins
"After his enjoyable biography of Craig Rice, Who Was That Lady?, Jeffrey Marks has produced a collection of essays about seven American female mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s. The odd title of his new book stems from the proposition that, with the coming of the nuclear age, 'an element of experimentation in American detective fiction flourished, especially among women authors who found themselves excluded from the private eye and spy fiction establishments. These women authors took the crime novel in new and innovative directions.' Marks' magnificent seven 'moved the genre forward into its rebirth', although he notes that 'their influences on later authors are almost all that remains.' Taylor wrote several of her best books before the 1940s and Highsmith was one of those who kept writing successfully long after the 1950s. At least her flame continues to burn brightly thanks to movie adaptations of her novels. Marks offers various interesting snippets. For instance, I was intrigued to learn that the once-prolific Taylor married at 42 and soon gave up writing for good. All too often books about crime fiction follow the same well-trodden paths and Marks is to be congratulated on his fresh perspective, even if Highsmith's career has now been chronicled in extraordinary depth in the biography Beautiful Shadow."
—Tangled Web, reviewed by Martin Edwards
"This biographical anthology provides insight into seven female authors who wrote mysteries and thrillers in the 1940s and 1950s. The twenty plus pages per author introduces new readers to what were once popular writers. Some of the works were turned into successful films so though the author may not be associated with a movie, the book is. Fans of the genre's 'atomic age' roots will appreciate insight into this magnificent seven though most will wish Jeffrey Marks gave each one their own book as the twenty plus dissertation seems too small. Still, it is worth the time to 'see' Margaret Millar, Leslie Ford, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith, and Mignon G. Eberhart because the bookology will surprise readers who appreciate the era."
“The seven writers chosen for coverage …all merit attention and (in some case) rediscovery. Marks provides many little-known biographical details, often based on original research in oral histories and other primary sources, along with critical insights into his subjects’ works and their influence on later writers.”
—Jon Breen, Mystery Scene Magazine
“The individual chapters are full of interesting and often new information on the seven subjects,”
—The Denver Post
America in the 1950s was a place of Eisenhower, the Korean Conflict, McCarthy, and Sputnik. Women found themselves trapped into a mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver, marginalized by the hyper-masculinity of the age. Mystery fiction had become a male bastion as well, promoting hardboiled private eye novels and spy fiction. It would be another three decades before groups to promote equality between the sexes in mystery fiction appeared.
Yet during that post-World War II era, seven women carved out a place in the genre. These women became the bestsellers of their time by innovation and experimentation. Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, Leslie Ford, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, Mignon Eberhart, and Phoebe Atwood Taylor are in no way similar to each other in style, theme, or subject matter. However, their writings created an Atomic Renaissance that continues to impact the mystery field today.
Book Excerpt from Atomic Renaissance:
The world order convulsed in 1945 and the mystery genre shook with it. No realm was exempt from the societal changes following the end of World War II and radical changes in the writing of the detective mysteries ensued.
The first Golden Age of mystery had ended with the advent of the Second World War. This pinnacle in mystery fiction is usually defined as the time between the great wars, 1918 to 1939. During this era, the Great Detective ruled, a larger-than-life character whose deductive brain solved the vital puzzle.
While England boasted many women authors during the first Golden Age, the U.S. could not. Only a few American women wrote detective stories on our soil prior to World War II. Anna Katherine Green, recognized as one of the earliest female mystery authors with The Leavenworth Case in 1878, didn’t publish much beyond the start of World War I. Her detectives were archetypal busybodies, nosy single women like Amelia Butterworth and Violet Strange.
One of the few American woman authors of the first Golden Age, Mary Roberts Rinehart, established a firm place in the hearts of her fans during the first three decades of the 1900s. She wrote romantic suspense, now frequently derided as gothic or the “Had I But Known” school of mystery. Her books featured heroines who foolishly plunged into the danger of an isolated basement or darkened hallway, saying afterwards “Had I but known what murderous villain waited for me.” Her novels paved the way for mysteries with more romantic interest, such as those written by Mignon G. Eberhart and Leslie Ford.
Another American woman, Carolyn Wells, began her own mystery series in 1909, featuring Fleming Stone. The sixty-one book series spanned four decades and covered a period in American history that included women’s suffrage, flappers, and later, working women.
During the long years of the Second World War, the traditional mystery lost popularity. American men who had fought in Europe and the Pacific no longer cared for cozy, estate home murders. They had seen war and death in reality. Their new fiction had to reflect the darker, harder life the soldiers had seen in Europe and the Pacific. The frightening thought of other countries unleashing nuclear bombs invaded the veterans’ fiction as well.
By 1945, the middle class returned to the U.S. greeted by rising incomes and unprecedented demand for consumer goods. After sixteen years of depression and then rations, American buyers wanted new and improved everything, including fiction.
Adding to the changes in the genre, many of the more blithe puzzle practitioners passed away before the end of the war or pursued other interests. Leaders in the field, like S. S. Van Dine, had passed away before Pearl Harbor. Others, like Ellery Queen, changed roles in the genre following the war, concentrating more on the publication of literary criticism and his magazine. The loss of these American authors left the gentler side of the genre near empty by the end of the war.
Yet even with these losses, English mystery writing changed little after 1945. Agatha Christie continued to publish a book or two per year. Some of her best work came from the late 1940s and early 1950s: The Hollow, A Murder is Announced, and Funerals are Fatal among them. The form was safe in England with its Grand Dame at the helm. Even today, many reviewers and bookstores classify the “British Cozy” as a subgenre in mystery.
However, America had changed, becoming more concerned with the nuclear horrors unleashed in 1945. The Cold War and McCarthyism brought a new type of mystery category to life, the spy novel. The fears of Communist takeover led to a new fiction category replacing the deduction of a crafty killer with the hunt for a mysterious agitator who threatened the world and “our way of life”. This type of book was almost exclusively masculine in nature; the spy was a “super man” who loved women and lots of them. His hyper-masculinity meshed well with the gritty private eye novels being written by Mickey Spillane and similar authors. This new fiction left little room for women authors at a time when more women were writing mysteries.
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