The Lethal Sex (1959) ed. John D. MacDonald

This is a collection which has been on my radar ever since Xavier mentioned it in on Facebook last year. I was immediately drawn to it by the fact it includes a short story by Juanita Sheridan, who is one of my favourite authors. However, I found that this collection has many other brilliant stories in it; some from authors new to me and others from familiar faces. My copy is actually a reprint of this 1950s anthology, published by the Mystery Writers of America. All of the stories are written by female writers and female characters play a prominent part in the stories themselves.

But before I crack on with discussing the stories I would like to comment on the choice of editor. After all the reprint itself feels the need to comment on the matter in A Matronising Preface. A male editor for a collection of stories by female writers, is not a situation likely to crop up these days and if it did then someone like MacDonald would not be anyone’s first choice. His attitude towards women shall we say is a little patronising, though don’t worry ladies he does have this to say about the ‘gals’ included in the anthology:

‘I like women […] I am in that minority which is perfectly willing to concede that they are people, and treat them as such.’

Yet I concur with the preface in its suggestion that MacDonald is not comfortable in his editorial role; working with a lot of female writers seems to bring out his insecurities and feelings of being intimidated. Of course this is all masked in a flourish of hearty humour…

‘Every story was written by a female, and their brilliance, their shrewdness, their capacity for horror may surprise those of you still foolish enough to think of woman as the weaker sex. I personally prefer to call this book The Modern Man’s Guide and Handbook for Understanding a Creative Woman.’

… and on asking for stories from female members of the MWA, he writes that:

‘Should any man care to give his life a flavour 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. All? Read the stories and make your own guesses.’

Isn’t he rib-ticklingly hilarious? Yeah…

Nearly choked with spluttering laughter though when he says that he feels he is not international playboy material, because yes that is the sort of comment an anthology editor needs to bring up when discussing his difficulties with handling a group of female writers… Suffice to say the introductory sections, including the acknowledgements for that matter, reveal a lot of material, which I can’t see any anthology editor ever including in a modern day publication.

However, to say one nice thing about MacDonald, he writes that the one thing he asked for in the stories was ‘for bite and violence and atmosphere,’ and to the writers’ credit they certainly bring that to the party.

So now on with the stories…

‘Dear Mr MacDonald’ by Christianna Brand

This tale commences with a letter saying Macdonald’s request for a story got sent to the wrong address, so Brand only had time to send on a document found in a dead woman’s hands, a woman who had received the letter instead. How can a mis-sent letter lead to someone’s death? (And no I’m not telling you). The story develops the cat and mouse relationship to perfection in a small number of pages and it is the best short story I have read by Brand, which is no statement to make half-heartedly. But the ending is absolutely brilliant. Can’t say a thing about it other than read it immediately!

‘Snowball’ by Ursula Curtiss

Two friends go to a remote cottage, concerned about their married friends. Given the state of the living room they know murder has happened, but who murdered who? Charles and Anne Jethro have a cat and dog relationship, with each holding quite a ‘Hyde’ side to themselves. I loved the phrase about Anne that, ‘when her hand was forced there was usually a hatpin inside…’ The answer to the above question is hidden well until the very end of the book, though the solution is given a little abruptly.

‘McGowney’s Miracle’ by Margaret Millar

A lawyer tracks down a retired undertaker after an anonymous letter leads to the exhumation of his last client, an action which brings up startling news! Yet the power behind this story is the relationship between and the motivations behind the actions of the undertaker and his client. Both aspects of the story are definitely out of the ordinary and are darkly comedic in some ways, with the disturbing elements offsetting any trace of sentimentalism.

‘He Got What He Deserved’ by Bernice Carey

Gloria Ericsson is arrested for murder and the story is her discussion with her lawyer Robert Neilsen. She tells him of the events leading up to the death, convinced her actions were justified. The moral compass of this story is decidedly ambiguous with killer and victim potentially having dubious motives. Information is slowly fed through the story to delay the reader figuring out too much in one go.

‘Two for Tea’ by Margaret Manners

This is a story whose darkness gives current Scandi Noir a run for its money. Yet it is in no way graphic, in fact the beginning scene is an afternoon tea engagement between Iris Teleton and the woman she believes her husband is having an affair with. But it is not just the reader who has the rug pulled from underneath them. The familiar love triangle trope is refreshed in this tale with incredibly sneaky character deviousness. Again moral ambiguity reigns, though the reader can’t help leaning more towards a certain character despite their faults.

‘You’ll be the Death of Me’ by Anthony Gilbert

Mary Arthur is newly married to Dendy. She is plain and not well off, so often wonders why he married her. They now live in the middle of nowhere, which is quite unnerving for the urban Mary. Yet the action of the story all begins when she finds a woman’s coat button in his pocket and the tension rises when she hears that there is a killer on the loose, with the body of a woman having been found from last night. The reader quickly sets up a number of predictions, some may be right, some not, though the comeuppance of the culprit is a clever one.

‘The Withered Heart’ by Jean Potts

Voss has been having an affair, though he blames his wife for the way it has died out. Yet Voss doesn’t intend for it to be that way any longer and before the book begins he has seen to it that his wife will not burden his life further. It was all carefully planned, until he releases his one mistake. Can he correct it before he is found out?

‘To Be Found and Read’ by Miriam Allen Deford

Again another story with a chilling ending, which I don’t think many readers will see coming. It all begins when our corrupt lawyer narrator has one little job to do before he gets married in a few hours. Yet the picking up of a hitchhiker has irrevocable and fatal consequences…

‘Sleeping Dogs or Now You Know’ by Gladys Cluff

Cluff’s story is incredibly hard to categorise and is probably the one which has the least ‘mystery’ involved in it. The open ended nature of the denouement in particular makes the issue harder, though it has something quite Carr-like in it. Lynne Harris is dissatisfied with how much her husband, Walter, has gone to seed. Yet she starts to live other lives through fantasising about those involved in crimes she reads about in newspapers. But can she take empathy a little too far?

‘A Matter of Ethics’ by Carolyn Thomas

This story is set in Trinidad and is the one which modern readers may find difficulty with in regards to the un-PC thread in it to do with race. The finale to this revenge plot is despicable, something Francis Iles might have conceived of, but as I say the un-PC aspects render it less successful.

‘What is going to Happen? by Nedra Tyre

Betty is our child narrator in this piece who is being interviewed at some kind of institution, about her home life and its’ disintegration. A dark tale which is an effective narrative in criminal psychology.

‘Thirty-Nine’ by D. Jenkins Smith

Smith’s story wins the ‘Weirdest Tale in the Collection’ award and in fairness does make you wonder about the mind of the person who created it. It all takes place on a chicken farm, with a woman who is somewhat bored with her life. The ending is violent and abrupt, though I can’t see anyone foreseeing what will take place. The lack of motivation in the piece is probably what weakens it as a whole.

‘No Trace’ by Veronica Parker Johns

Johns’ story gives us another wife, named Hazel, not happy with her husband, who incidentally is also called Walter. Things begin to unravel for her when she decides to end her affair with the husband of Walter’s secretary. Events are set off in motion, which very much blow up in her face, though the writer does not achieve this through loud explosion type actions, but through chillingly civilised middle class conversation. In some ways I would pair this tale with the one written by Margaret Manners.

‘There are no Snakes in Hawaii’ by Juanita Sheridan

And so to the story which drew me into this collection in the first place. In keeping with three of Sheridan’s novels this story takes place in Hawaii. The conflict which rises up in a newly arrived married couple is located in their differing responses to the island. For one person it is liberating and freeing and for the other it is hell. But will they stay or will they go? Or will one of them have another solution to the disagreement? This is the longest piece in the collection, over forty pages, so the relationship and the narrator’s role in the piece are able to develop quite well, with a very good tug of war going on, metaphorically speaking. Yet I think I will remember this story for its ending, which is surprisingly dark, (a word I realise I have overused in this review, but never mind). In particular one person’s actions at this point in the book could bring up quite a discussion on gender politics and bias.

So there you have it. A whistle stop tour of a fantastic story collection. I can’t really pick out favourites, simply because I would be listing most of the collection. The endings to these tales though do stand out for their excellence in the main, which is no mean feat, as I often feel the endings for shorter pieces can fall a little flat, due to the issue of brevity. Short story writers could learn a lot from this collection. It is a masterclass in psychological suspense, domestic crime and twists. I am pleased this anthology has been reprinted and I urge you to buy it as soon as possible.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Includes letters or diary extracts (‘Dear Mr MacDonald by Christianna Brand)

Calendar of Crime: December (2) Author’s Birth Month (Christianna Brand)

16 comments

  1. I haven’t read this one yet but I’ll still comment on it, or more accurately on some aspects of it that I find very interesting. I don’t know how familiar you are with JdMcD’s work but unlike his namesakes Philip and Ross he was not much of a puzzle plot guy – he actually went out of his way to trash GA writers in the article he contributed to the MWA’s Mystery Handbook. He believed crime fiction should be realistic, take no prisoners and be character-driven and his choice of stories on the basis of the summaries you provide reflect that. I happen to have read other contemporary MWA anthologies – some of them edited by women as it happens – and the material was much “safer” and playing by the rules of the time. This on the other hand could easily have been edited by Otto Penzler fifty years later, which leads one to this paradox that JdMcD was neanderthalian in his attitude to women but a pionneer when it comes to crime fiction. He’d better have kept his big mouth shut and let the stories speak for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha yep MacDonald really should have just gone, ‘Here are the stories. Enjoy!’ – Vast improvement on what he actually wrote lol
      and as for you Xavier, you should really need to read this collection. It was pretty much made for you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • And some of his fiction, not so much the McGee series, was rather egalitarian/pro-feminist in a way this introduction doesn’t indicate (for obvious example, THE EXECUTIONERS). I have to wonder if someone was worried that Manly Men wouldn’t buy the anthology without this nonsense up front.

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  2. MacDonald’s Travis Mcgee was another character noted for being degrading to women. In his treatment towards them. He would not be created until the mid 60s. That was his first series detective. John also wrote some science fiction stories and a few novels in the early 50s. Not sure why he left the field. Maybe mysteries paid better money.

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  3. I tried to read his first novel ‘ The Deep Blue Goodbye’ a year or two ago and gave up about half-way. Not only did it have a Neanderthal attitude to women but I found it offensively violent and our ‘hero’ must be one of the most unpleasant egotists I’ve ever come across. I know we are in the 60s (hell I was a teenager at the time so came across all sorts of characters in fiction) but Travis McGee must be one of the most repulsive. Now had I read him in the 1960s would I have felt the same? I’d like to think so but we all change over the years so who knows?

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      • Julian Symons had some interesting observations on MacDonald and Travis McGee. The pithiest criticism was about his penchant for “redemptive” sex: one night with Travis and a woman, no matter how lost or forlorn, would find herself healed, restored, transformed. That observation nails Macdonald’s attitude perfectly.

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  4. THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BYE wasn’t remotely the first MacDonald novel, though it was the first McGee novel…McGee was created, against MacDonald’s better judgement, to be the new Fawcett Gold Medal series to replace the space on the racks where the Shell Scott novels of Richard Prather had been, and were written largely to cater to that audience. My favorite tag for McGee was that he was a “Rotarian hippy”…

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    • She only wrote 4 Lily Wu novels. The first is set in New York where Lily meets Janice, who narrates all the stories. The other three books are set in Hawaii. I’ve reviewed most of the novels on the blog, but it would be great to hear your thoughts on how well (or not) she portrays Hawaii.

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