The Secret Lives of Married Women
THE SECRET LIVES OF MARRIED WOMEN, with its brilliant pulp paperback cover by Glen Orbik, sounds and looks a lot more salacious than it really is. It is a brilliant and spellbinding psychological exploration of the dark side written by only the second woman ever published by Hard Case Crime in its decade of existence. This is noir from a female perspective.
Author Elissa Wald is an interesting story herself. She ran away to join the circus, worked as a stripper to put herself through Columbia University, and spent time exploring the world of S&M. In 1995, she self-published --- still unusual back then --- a collection of S&M-themed fiction called MEETING THE MASTER. The book became a cult hit, found a traditional publisher, and is still in print all these years later. Wald wrote her first novel in 2001. And then she vanished.
Until now. THE SECRET LIVES OF MARRIED WOMEN is about two identical twin sisters, Leda and Lillian. Leda tells her sister, “It’s like we’re one person split in two. I got the wildness, the darkness and the artistry.” And as for Lillian: “You got the credentials, the integrity and the sense.” Lillian later admits that Leda “…was like a wanton, wayward version of me.” In this book, which is divided in half with each sister telling her own story, each will have her world turned on its head and have to face their darkest fears and the darkness inside them.
"...a brilliant and spellbinding psychological exploration of the dark side written by only the second woman ever published by Hard Case Crime in its decade of existence."
The doppelganger has long been a feature of noir. But here it is not a paranormal double but an actual birth double. And the first sentence of the book tells us we are entering the noir universe: “Before that summer, the summer of fear.”This is a hard-boiled mystery, so it has all the elements: a stalker, a murder, a crime, a dramatic courtroom confrontation. But this is very much a psychological drama, told from a female point of view. The major action is inside the protagonists.
Leda, the wild child, has settled down, fallen in love, gone the romantic route, and seemingly gotten it all. With a devoted husband, one child and another on the way, she is now on the verge of the American Dream --- moving into a new home in the suburbs. But as Freud pointed out over a century ago, the past, especially the past we have buried, has a way of coming back to haunt us. And events soon send Leda spiraling into doubt about her new well-ordered world. She says at one point: “I shouldn’t have married him, I thought for perhaps the hundredth time.” Eventually the prospect of violence will drive her into a state of terror. She says, “If you are lucky you can rid yourself of the wolf at your door, but what do you do if the wolf is in your bed?”
For Lillian, she already has everything. A brilliant, successful attorney, she has worked hard and played by the rules. But she and her husband have been unable to conceive a child. While working on a major case, she encounters a woman who is a total submissive and who fascinates her. She finds that the woman “has a force field of whole-hearted focus, devotion, self-abandonment. Rapture.” Later, Lillian says of the submissive that “this young woman spent her every waking hour in a kind of erotic trance.”
Just as Leda is forced to take a journey into the darkness of her current perfect life, Lillian must take a journey into the darkness of her own heart and starts exploring the world of S&M. This will lead to one of the most explicit sex scenes that I have read in a recent novel.
But while the title sounds like the title of a movie that would have been playing on 42nd Street in the 1970s, those coming to this book expecting a lot of kinky sex will be disappointed. This is a gripping psychological story that keeps you turning the pages. This is noir. And in the noir universe, nothing is ever as it seems. Even what we think we know for certain might be false. Leda describes it perfectly. Wald writes: “Sitting there, listening to the locusts seething behind the screen, I had a sudden dizzying sense of how scant a shelter we had here, how precarious it all was: the few planks underfoot that kept us above the dirt, the lanterns that we lit against the dusk.”
In true noir, the darkness is always closer than you think. Elissa Wald is a great, honest writer. One hopes we will not have to wait another decade for her next work. And kudos again to Hard Case Crime for introducing us to another wonderful writer and keeping 21st-century noir on the cutting edge.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on October 11, 2013