August 27, 2013
Book Notes - Sarah Weinman "Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense"
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sarah Weinman has long been one of my favorite critics, especially for crime fiction. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense is a meticulously edited anthology of 20th century female writers, a book made even more worthwhile by Weinman's notes on every story and introduction.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Crime connoisseur Sarah Weinman has thoughtfully selected a Whitman’s Sampler of wickedness."
In her own words, here is Sarah Weinman's Book Notes music playlist for the anthology she edited, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense:
I should say from the getgo that I prefer to work in silence, without music playing in the background. I find that to write or edit or research, I need to concentrate fully on the task at hand, and the presence of music will divert my attention to the melody, the harmony, some random lyric – anything but what I was supposed to work on.
But there's another reason, best illustrated by something that happened in the summer of 2002, while working a Sunday afternoon shift at the late, great independent mystery bookstore Partners & Crime. (That part-time gig, while in graduate school, was my introduction to the book business, and though I wouldn't know it for a few years, the beginning of my transition away from a career as a forensic biologist to writer and editor guided by a great love of mystery fiction.) I was alone much of that shift, alternating between reshelving stock, tidying up the store, and sneak-reading pages of a forthcoming crime novel.
Then a customer came in, signaled by the bell that chimed when the main door opened, and I immediately invoked my usual opening greeting of "if there's anything I can help you with, please let me know." After a minute of browsing, the customer, a middle-aged man of nondescript bearing, turned to me and said: "why don't you have any music playing in the store? It's so quiet in here. Doesn't that bother you?" To which I said, feeling a bit sheepish at the answer about to come out of my mouth: "There's no music playing? Honestly, I hadn't noticed, because the music in my head is so loud it must have compensated."
The man shook his head a little, in a mix of disbelief and embarrassment, but as I recall, he did buy a book. And the music in my head remains loud: helpful when needing to memorize parts for choir concerts or vocal performances (more frequent in my youth, exceedingly rare now) and irritating when the latest earworm lodges itself in my brain for days.
The thing about editing an anthology with a specific concept – domestic suspense fiction – and a constrained time frame – between World War II and the height of Women's Liberation – is that it lends itself naturally to be tied in with great music, from murder ballads to wrenching accounts of being trapped as housewives or helpmates to more empowering ditties. While I admit I wasn't listening to these songs as Troubled Daughters came into being, I listen to them every chance I get now.
"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" by the Andrews Sisters (1942)
The Glenn Miller version of the song is equally famous and good. I picked this because it's the (way more optimistic) source title for Helen Nielsen's much darker, more menacing story of a woman recently married to her onetime boss, for whom she was secretary while he was married to somebody else, and is now worried she's about to be replaced. Never mind that a series of prank phone calls keep happening in the middle of the night, and her worries increase that much more.
"Stone Cold Dead in the Market (He Had It Coming) by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan (1946)
A calypso song about a woman who kills her abusive husband in a different way for each song verse? As sung by the incomparable Ella and, instead of her usual duetting partner Louis Armstrong, a different Louis? Of course I'm going to include it.
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", by Kitty Wells (1952)
Written in response to Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life", Wells took no prisoners while singing: "It’s a shame that all the blame is on us women/It's not true that only you men feel the same/From the start, most every heart that's ever broken/Was because there always was a man to blame." The song – incidentally, written by a man, Jay Miller, using the same tempo and structure as Thompson's – was the first by a solo female singer to reach #1 on Billboard's country chart, and almost certainly paved the way for future stereotype-shatterers like Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, and Loretta Lynn.
"Harper Valley P.T.A" by Jeannie C. Riley (1968)
The widow Mrs. Johnson raises her teenage daughter alone in a small town that's mighty disapproving of her ways, as evident by a critical note the daughter brings home from the PTA. So guess who shows up at the next meeting in a miniskirt, ready to expose that "little Peyton Place" for the hypocrites they are? Rollicking and fiery, the six-million-copy selling song made Riley a star (even if a 1994 sequel "Return to Harper Valley" didn't prove to be a success.)
"One's On the Way" by Loretta Lynn (1971)
The great country singer got handed a wry, gently mocking piece that contrasts celebrity, privilege, and advancements in women's lib with a more ordinary life as a housewife, running after a gaggle of children (while pregnant with the next one), keeping her husband happy, and wondering why those advancements seem so alien to her.
"The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" by Dr. Hook (1972)
I could have listed the more famous version by Marianne Faithfull, which I like a great deal, but my heart's set on Dennis Locorriere's vocals and the soaring guitar-heavy arrangement. "At the age of 37, she realized she'd never ride through Paris in a sportscar with the warm wind in her hair" sums up anxiety, thwarted aspirations, and being trapped in a life you didn't realize you got stuck in.
(Interestingly, both these songs were written by Shel Silverstein, who was a master of chronicling human behavior of all kinds, which was why he reached little children and Playboy-reading adults and everybody in between all at the same time.)
"The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" by Vicki Lawrence (1972)
While guest-starring on the Carol Burnett Show as Mama (which eventually led to the Mama's Family spinoff) Vicki Lawrence was married to songwriter Bobby Russell, who wrote this suspenseful, chilling song of infidelity, corruption, and protecting one's family, with a surprise twist worthy of the best crime writers. Russell was skittish about recording it, but Lawrence believed the song would be a hit and recorded it herself. She was right: it went straight to #1.
"Dark Lady" by Cher (1974)
It's odd how this song isn't talked about as much as her other big hits, but this – about a woman who learns of her husband's affair from a fortune teller, only to realize the teller severely downplayed her own role and do something about it, gun in hand – is pure Cher, still at her peak but as her own marriage to Sonny Bono was winding down (albeit in less violent a fashion.)
"Janie's Got a Gun" by Aerosmith (1989)
The bass line, the repeating chorus, the anguished "run away, run away from the pain." No wonder Janie has to do what she has to do to get out of a terrible situation.
"Goodbye Earl" by the Dixie Chicks (2000)
An obvious choice, but it still holds up rather well, and the sense of glee and rage the Chicks sing about rings even truer now.
Sarah Weinman and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense links:
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