Sarah Weinman talks about editing Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense [Penguin]:

Assembling an anthology is a complicated process involving a lot of moving parts. First off you must think of a concept that will occupy your time and senses for a year, if not more. In the case of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, the notion of a lost generation of female writers working in the domestic suspense terrain between World War II and the height of Women’s Liberation had obsessed me for several years before I began selecting authors and appropriate stories. Those tasks, too, took months, searching out vintage issues of mystery magazines, poring through old anthologies, and chasing leads based on little more than a story title.

The most complex task, however, was securing rights to reprint the fourteen stories in the anthology. My budget was modest. My needs – print, digital, audio, in a variety of English-language territories – were vast. My negotiation skills improved markedly from start to finish. In the best scenarios, rightsholders were pleased as punch to see their author included, their story reprinted. Other situations proved to be more difficult, but hardly unmanageable. But in the end, I got almost everything I wanted, which is why readers can enjoy short fiction by stars like Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and Margaret Millar, as well as underrated gems by Joyce Harrington, Helen Nielsen, and Barbara Callahan.

Trying to secure the rights for one story, though, was a mystery worthy of the best crime novelist. One, I might add, that is still not resolved.

Miriam Allen deFord was not on my immediate want list for Troubled Daughters, but quickly landed a spot there after I stumbled across her story “Mortmain” in an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine issue first published in 1944. The story was taut and teeming with layers of barely repressed rage, with a nasty twist of an ending that surprised me anew over several reads. The more I learned of deFord’s background – early suffragist, Fortean scholar, chronicler of real-life crimes and prolific short story writer and anthologist in the mystery and science fiction/fantasy genres – I knew she and “Mortmain” were a perfect fit for my anthology.

But I quickly realized finding a representative of the deFord estate would be more complicated than I expected. DeFord had no heirs; she never bore children and her husband predeceased her. There was no literary agency of record. EQMM had reverted the rights to the story back to deFord decades ago. After her death in 1975 in the San Francisco hotel where she resided in her final years, deFord’s estate passed into the hands of her longtime friend and fellow civil rights advocate, the ACLU lawyer Ernest Besig. He died in 1998, but his daughter disavowed any knowledge of the estate during a telephone conversation with me at the end of last year. Even the Library of America, which reprinted a true crime story by deFord, had no clue who held the rights.

A minor wild goose chase led me to hunt down the legal department of educational publisher EBSCO, which turned out (after much hand-wringing and many, many phone calls and emails) to hold the rights solely to some of deFord’s nonfiction work, written on a for-hire basis for a publishing house long ago acquired by the company. But to this day, I have no idea who legitimately holds the rights to Miriam Allen deFord’s considerable body of work. Penguin let me reprint the story, but only after I drafted a letter that satisfied their legal department of my due diligence.

My deFord quest bothers me because it will not be the last time a talented writer slips through the copyright cracks, designated an orphan work because the work to preserve the literary estate fell off with the subsequent deaths of those who knew best. Publishers, understandably, are skittish about orphan works, because someone might come along and put in a claim for a considerable amount of money that ought to have been set aside years, if not decades, earlier. There are no easy answers with respect to orphan works (hence the recent spate of lawsuits involving Google Books.) But the longer time passes without one, the worse off we, as a global reading culture, will be.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense [Penguin]

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