The Twenties had the Lost Generation; the Fifties had the Beat Generation, yet all through the Thirties, Forties and well into the Sixties and Seventies, there was a group of women writers of crime fiction less talked about, less read these days, but worth celebrating: writers such as Margery Allingham, Josephine Bell, who helped found the Crime Writers’ Association; Vera Caspary, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Dorothy B. Hughes, who first introduced readers to the term ‘serial killer’, Margaret Millar and probably the most famous writer of the bunch, Patricia Highsmith, yet Dorothy Salisbury Davis deserves special recognition and not because she had outlived her contemporaries. She was born in 1916.
True, Davis, along with Sara Paretsky, inspired the creation of Sisters in Crime; and true, that Davis has been the finalist for the Edgar Award multiple times, served as president of the Mystery Writers of America and then was made Grand Master of that organization, but Davis did something else. She created complex female characters. Davis created three detectives with a series. Her New York Lieutenant Marks series has two titles. Her Mrs. Norris is a Scottish housekeeper, who works with DA, Jasper Tully; and Julie Hayes, who sometimes solves crimes with her husband. Hayes is an actress turned gossip columnist, and occasional fortune-teller. Norris and Hayes each have four titles to their series. Her remaining crime-fiction novels are standalones. The significance of Norris and Hayes is that they are neither femmes fatales nor helpless and fragile women. Hayes, though she is married, is independent and spirited. Oh, and the crimes are as violent and vicious as anything the male writers penned. Hayes is, in fact, raped in the last novel of the series, The Habit of Fear (1987). In this novel she also searches for her biological parents, a subplot from Davis’s own life since she discovered at seventeen that she had been adopted. She would research for and find her parents in Ireland.
Davis wrote numerous short stories, twenty novels, seventeen of which are crime fiction, and three historical novels. A word about her short stories – they are brave gems. Writers are admonished not to write regional speech, but Davis pulls it off with sincerity. She grew up in the Midwest and knew farm country well enough to convey small-town life with authenticity. She saved her experience of the big cities such as Chicago and New York for her novels. A short story with the memorable title, “By the Scruff of the Soul”, illustrates Davis’s talent for turning a phrase. Here are some examples:
Maudie was conniving a match for Clara with a man who could talk a thousand dollars’ worth of paint without jumping his Adam’ s apple.
Now I knew for fact the only thing Clara ever put in the oven was maybe a pair of shoes to warm them of a winter’s morning.
It was one of those October days, you know, when the clouds keep building up like suds and then just seem to wash away. You could hear the school bell echo, and way off the hawking of the wild geese, and you’d know the only sound of birds till spring would be the lonesome cawing of crows.
The arc of Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s career is in itself remarkable. She worked PR for a traveling magician, as a research librarian for an ad agency, and as editor for a magazine. Fond and active of the theatre, she met her husband, the character actor Harry Davis, when he was working on The Glass Menagerie. They married in 1946 and remained together until his death in 1993. Most filmgoers might recognize Harry in the Matthau and Lemon comedy, The Fortune Cookie.
Sarah Weinman, another advocate of Davis’s work, reported that the venerable author still writes. Her short story, “Dies Irae,” appeared in Sisters on the Case Volume Two, edited by Sara Paretsky. Open Road Media has released twenty-two Davis titles as e-books. They are worth the time. The lady is a living legend.