This important (and overlooked for decades) 1959 anthology was reissued by The Mystery Writers Of America in 2018, and is available in print and Kindle editions. Something tells me equal representation for women writers wasn’t top of mind for editors, publishers or even the MWA sixty years ago.
The original paperback edition showcases a wonderful Robert McGinnis cover illustration, though in keeping with the times and then prevailing trends, it’s a needlessly sexy picture for the deliciously dark but not necessarily saucy content of the 14 stories selected by MWA Grandmaster (though not at the time this book was done) and editor John D. MacDonald, who only broke out of the pulps himself and into the big time (relatively) just nine years earlier with The Brass Cupcake, then went on to bigger success with The Executioners, filmed as Cape Fear in 1962, and of course, his long running Travis McGee P.I. series. MacDonald provides a terrific introduction as well as lead-ins for each of the fourteen stories written by women, some of them full-time mystery/crime fiction writers, some working in other genres from science fiction to romance and even children’s books. MacDonald adopts an appropriately apologetic stance, noting that some of the talented writers in the anthology deserved much wider recognition.
Some did get it (back then, at least), while some, sadly, did not. So there are some names I’ve never heard of and been unable to learn more about. And there are luminaries from that era, like Margaret Millar, the 1956 Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, who wrote more than two dozen mystery novels including three different series. Somehow Millar (previously Margaret Sturm) managed to snag Mr. Kenneth Millar in between pounding out successful novels, the Mister better known as ‘Ross MacDonald’, hard-boiled maestro of Lew Archer fame.
And there’s the incredibly prolific Christiann Brand, who wrote more books than I can count, with multiple mystery series, stand-alone novels, general fiction, children’s series and more. Her Death In High Heels (above) is a favorite. In fact, The Lethal Sex gives fair representation to U.S. as well as UK writers like Brand. The book was published later in Britain, though from the look of it, lost some of the stories along the way.
The complete US edition of The Lethal Sex also included stories by Ursula Curtis, Bernice Carey, Margaret Manners, Anthony Gilbert, Jean Potts, Miriam Allen DeFord, Gladys Cluff, Carolyn Thomas, Neda Tyre, D. Jenkin Smith, Veronica Parker Johns and Juanita Sheridan. I had a crumbling 1959 paperback bought on Ebay in a bulk-books purchase which barely made it through an initial reading, so I was thrilled to see that it was re-issued, and in mighty handsome packaging this time, even if it’s not a McGinnis painting. Look for this one. It’s a worthwhile read.