In 1959 the Mystery Writers of America decided their annual anthology should feature stories entirely by women. The resulting volume of fourteen stories, The Lethal Sex, published as a paperback original by Dell (with an amazing Robert McGinnis cover) included short tales by Margaret Millar, Nedra Tyre, and Miriam Allen deFord (all of whom appear in Troubled Daughters) as well as other notable crime writers of the time like Ursula Curtiss, Anthony Gilbert (yes, a female), Jean Potts, Juanita Sheridan, and Christianna Brand, as well as other writers who were obscure even to me (who, exactly, is D. Jenkins Smith?)
For some reason MWA felt The Lethal Sex should be edited by a notable male crime writer of the time. They reached out to John D. MacDonald, who hadn’t yet hit upon the Travis McGee idea that would give him fame and fortune from the 1960s onwards, but was a mainstay of Fawcett’s Gold Medal line and other paperback original houses. Not only did he choose the slate of stories that would appear in the anthology, he wrote an introduction *and* an afterword. The full pieces aren’t available online but what is available is awfully mind-boggling. Here are a few, with thanks to The Passing Tramp and The Trap of Solid Gold for memorializing them previously:
“I wrote imploring letters to eighty-odd female members of the Mystery Writers of America… They responded and, when you have read the book you will know how handsomely. Should any man care to give his life a flavor 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.
I like women. I am in that male minority which is perfectly willing to concede that they are people, and treat them as such. But I do not understand them. Out of unguessable motivations and indefinable applications of inexplicable instinct, they can always produce the irrational act. And then justify it.
Had I, in my coward heart, ever felt the sneaky yen to emulate the career of Casanova, this boyish dream has been cruelly obliterated. If it takes only an inundation of spirited professional correspondence with women to make me highly nervous, I can not help but wonder how catastrophic would be the results of an equal number of personal associations. I can now see that the modern occupation known as International Playboy requires much more than suavity, money and social charm. It requires, primarily, nerves of tungsten steel.
It is traditional, I am told, for anthologists to explain in an introduction the rules they used for selection. I asked for bite, and violence and atmosphere. I did not want any of those tidy, cozy, hemstitched little formula jobs. If you just adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you’ve bought the wrong book…”
“….As you read each [story], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman. And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.
She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy. I guess this is a love note to that woman. She is a very special gal. And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere….”
“When, in my original ignorance, I planned this anthology I had intended to write a little introductory note for each story. Some biographical jazz, and an applause bit. Now I know better. Honestly, girls, I’m not really terrified of you, en masse. This nervous twitch comes from weaving baskets. I have not even touched your titles! Even though some of them are not what I would call apt. In fact, it took supernatural courage to correct a few mistakes in spelling.
This is an exotic banquet I set before you. We have called it The Lethal Sex. I would prefer to think of it as The Modern Man’s Guide and Handbook for Understanding a Creative Woman. Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents… and their savage little minds.”
Finally, here is JDM’s dedication for the anthology, which also says a lot:
To all those unsung heroes of modern letters, those harassed, unraveled, ink-stained wretches, the professional editors. At last I understand their problems.