An Abbreviated History of Marilyn Stasio
Call it a case of literary ping-pong, but if Stephen Miller was inspired by me to write about Dilys Winn’s groundbreaking mystery reference book MURDER INK, then I have to tip my metaphorical hat to him for how I spent a good chunk of my Sunday evening. That’s because he mentioned, en passant, that Marilyn Stasio was one of the contributors to MURDER INK, and so it got me to thinking and Googling and researching how she ended up with her perch at the New York Times Book Review. In doing so, I found many surprises, some interesting parallels between her writing trajectory and mine, and blew the lid off a few of my assumptions that, considering how much I’ve written about her here, should not have been so ingrained.
One thing that must be considered is if Stasio herself really holds the belief of having the kind of power attributed to her by the mystery community. Perhaps, but I suspect not because of her other main love: the theater. The first reference I can find to her theatrical association goes way back to 1958 when she had a bit part in an MIT production of Ben Jonson’s THE ALCHEMIST (there’s no graduation date listed alongside Stasio’s name, which makes me think she got drafted into the production by friends.)
Sometime in the 1970s, which is also when she’s reported to have written about books for the then-Murdoch-owned New York, Stasio joined up with the New York Post to become, alongside Clive Barnes, its theater critic. Eventually she would part ways with the Post and write periodically about theater-related matters for the NYT (along with a lone review of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” for Entertainment Weekly in 1990) and since roughly 1999, she’s called Variety home for her theater reviews – which are far more numerous than her crime columns.
And what, then of the crime columns? I knew she’d had her standing
gig with the NYTBR since 1988, but the first piece to have the “Crime”
tag affixed didn’t appear until September 18 of that year,
when she reviewed then-current mysteries by Marcia Biederman, Roger L.
Simon, Anne Perry and Leonard Tourney. Three weeks later, she’d broker a conversation between P.D. James and Lawrence Block. It’s behind a TimesSelect wall (which should come down any month now), but here’s a choice excerpt:
L.B.: In the earliest American hard-boiled fiction, there were
heroes who were virtually criminals themselves. Even Sam Spade was
absolutely a cold-blooded opportunist.
P.D.J.: But he had his own
L.B.: Well, in the sense that he had this code which
said that if your partner is murdered you probably ought to do
something about it because … well, gee, it kind of looks bad if you
don’t. In ”The Maltese Falcon,” that’s about the closest Sam Spade
comes to following the code. But beyond that, sleeping with your
partner’s wife was all right. Overlooking murder was probably all
right, too, if you could get away with it… . Some of those early
American hard-boiled heroes weren’t knights in tarnished armor at all.
They were just out for themselves, looking to make a buck.
P.D.J.: But Hammett’s hero always tried to give his clients good value for their money.
Well, I don’t know that that made Sam Spade a moral man. Maybe
Hammett’s other detective, the Continental Op, had a moral code. But he
was a professional private eye who worked as an agency employee. Most
of the time he just wanted to get to the end of his cases and get paid,
rather than to set society straight. Now Chandler … what Raymond
Chandler contributed to the mythology was a private detective who was a
moral man. Philip Marlowe was a hero who wasn’t just looking out for
his own ends; he was a man acting for the good of others, a man who was
not himself mean, walking down these mean streets …
you think Stasio’s appearance as the crime columnist came out of the
blue, allow me to correct that assumption. In fact, her first
mystery-related piece appeared in 1984, when she reviewed Donald Westlake’s A LIKELY STORY. The accompanying byline was most interesting: Marilyn Stasio writes a syndicated newspaper column called ”Mystery Alley.’ Unfortunately,
hardly any of these columns appear anywhere (though a Lexis search
managed to track some down that the St. Petersburg Times printed, but
didn’t give any ballpark estimate as to when Stasio began in
syndication) but that perch would give Stasio enough credibility to
keep contributing to the NYT on an occasional basis for the next four
years, until the crime fiction column spot opened up.
As an occasional contributor, Stasio knew how to stir up a storm, which she seemed to do with an April 28, 1985 piece on female detective fiction writers.
Paretsky, Muller and Grafton figure prominently, but so too do Marcia
Biederman, Martha Webb and Mickey Friedman. And then we get into the
The publishing industry at this point is skeptical about the broader
appeal of these women who are detectives and private investigators.
Those in the industry hold that most readers of hard-boiled fiction are
men, and the trade does not see them racing to buy books written by and
featuring women. They are not so sure that women want to read them
”As a rule, women seem not to be as fascinated as men
by the overtly violent action of such novels,” says Joan Kahn, an
editor at St. Martin’s Press with 30 years’ experience acquiring
mystery fiction. ”The behavior in these books is too crude and
simplistic for most women. ‘I punched him, I shot him, I killed him, I
dragged his body away.’ I am sure that women could write that kind of
bloodthirsty prose if they really wanted to. I’m just not convinced
that they like to read it.”
And men writers in the field
aren’t very encouraging. ”Women don’t fit well into a trench coat and
a slouch hat,” says Lawrence Block, the author of the popular Matthew
Scudder private-eye novels set in New York. ”The hard-boiled private
eye is a special figure in American mythology,” he says. ”It’s a
staple of the myth that he should be a cynical loner, a man at odds
with society and its values. That’s not something women normally relate
to. Women aren’t cynical loners – that’s not how they like to work. It
seems to me that if they want to go into the profession seriously,
women writers will have to change the myth itself, instead of trying to
fit themselves into it.”
lo, Mr. Block turned out to be quite the prophet. But Stasio gave the
last word to Margaret Millar (now consigned to being known as Ross
MacDonald’s wife) and she ran with it:
Women, she says, prefer to read and write about the more subtle
forms of psychological terror that she calls ”violence by
implication.” The quiet suggestion that a woman is losing her mind or
that a child may have been murdered is far more horrifying, she
believes, than a quick graphic act of brutality.
”I think that
women are actually more violent than men,” she says. ”When people are
oppressed – and let’s face it, women have been oppressed for years –
and then suddenly express their feelings, they tend to do so in a much
more explosive fashion. It’s like a pressure cooker going off.” As a
faithful follower of lurid murder trials, she offers one example of a
case in Southern California in which a woman laundry worker disposed of
her abusive husband by coating his sleeping body with a lethal mixture
of molasses and lye. ”How very original, hideous, subtle and ingenious
that was,” the 70-year-old writer marvels. ”And how very feminine.”
Not surprisingly, there were letters. One from Nancy Friedman balking at the omission of Julie Smith. One from Earl Daschlager pointing out a major gaffe. But Stasio stayed on, reviewing more books, writing about paperback reissues
(did you know that when Lilian Jackson Braun’s CAT WHO…mysteries were
revived in the 1980s, they were published as PBOs? Neither did I), and an examination of mysteries by region that she’d repeat in spirit twenty years later. A few more “In Short” pieces and she’d have the crime column, which has remained Stasio’s ever since.
Reading those early pieces when Stasio, perhaps, was in the midst of a long-term audition for the column, I get a sense of greater risk and curiosity than she has now. Is it a matter of getting older, of the genre moving in a direction she may not want to keep up with entirely, of having to abide by the NYTBR’s house style, or getting more out of her theatrical criticism? I also remember hearing her speak at the memorial service for Evan Hunter, where she noted how she used to be more “out and about” in mystery-land before making a conscious decision to withdraw. I suspect there might be a day when I will have to make that decision, or at least entertain it with much more seriousness than I do now. Is that to be expected or a real anomaly?
Far be it for me to have any available answers, but at least I know this: Marilyn Stasio is the bar for crime fiction reviewing, but before she got that torch, it belonged to those who preceded her at the Times and elsewhere, people like Newgate Callendar, Dorothy B. Hughes and of course, Anthony Boucher. I may disagree frequently with her take, and expect I will do so in the future, but at least I have a much better sense of context – and of her choices, real and perceived.