Saturday, May 23, 2015

Feminist Thrillers by Vera Caspary

By Vera Caspary (1899-1987).
Edited by A. B. Emrys.
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2009. 237 pages: 4 stories.
For sale HERE.
Through lowered lashes she studied the handsome face, thinking how little she knew of the mind behind that splendid façade. With all of the intimacy and compassion, she had never understood him, never dreamed of the scheming and deceit concealed by his facile charm. "You said that you could kill me, remember?"
Vera Caspary is remembered nowadays primarily for her novel Laura, which became the basis for an enormously popular motion picture in the 1940s. In common with Laura, the stories in this fine Crippen & Landru collection feature ambitious young women struggling to make it in what used to be called a man's world.

Caspary's feminism (the word itself even appears in one story) seems to have been informed by her political outlook, which worldview pervades her fiction. For her, women are constantly in a class struggle with the male power structure. Moreover, any wealthy person, man or woman, who didn't start at the bottom and work their way to the top is worthy of contempt. How much of this attitude is the result of her own personal experiences or her own doctrinaire communism we cannot say, but she does return to these themes of sexual politics and the abuses of the wealthy nearly every time.

The book contains four short novels (variously called these days novellas or novelettes). The form allows her to explore character in far more depth that would be possible in the short story.

The first story, "Stranger in the House," generates considerable suspense, especially with its element of child endangerment; if the basic scenario hadn't already been used in at least one Hollywood film prior to the appearance of this story, "Stranger" would be more impressive.

Caspary must have chosen "Sugar and Spice" as the next story's title for ironic effect. In it women do things and think thoughts that men would probably find appalling in what they sometimes carelessly regard as the gentler sex.

"Ruth" dates from the 1960s, yet with a few changed details Jane Austen could have written it. For all of her female characters, men — husbands, boy friends, fathers — represent danger and sources of frustration; her women never come to a full understanding of the male psyche until it's either almost or completely too late. Somewhere along the way each man disappoints the woman because of physical brutality or failing to be a mind reader.

With "The Murder in the Stork Club," though, Caspary hits a homer. To us, it's the best story in the collection, a genuine whodunit with dollops of actual detecting and occasional flashes of humor. The story's milieu is vividly realized (editor A. B. Emrys explains Caspary's "research"); the characters are individualistic and engaging; the pacing is brisk; and the prose is fluid. As Emrys tells us, "Stork Club" could have been intended as a sequel of sorts to Laura: What might have happened after the film's fadeout to the detective and the ambitious young woman whose life he has just saved? As you quickly learn reading stories by Vera Caspary, the last thing would be wedded bliss and happily ever after for them. Instead, our detective hero has to solve a crime that looks more and more likely to have been committed by his wife — and the situation isn't improved any when she sets out to solve it herself. Lots of fun.

So there you have it: Vera Caspary, contrary to her reputation, was not a one-trick pony. She could write some of the most suspenseful stories when she put her mind to it, and this book is worth your time and attention.



1. "Stranger in the House" (1943):
    "He leaned over the bed and said confidentially, 'You're not to worry, darling. Everything has been arranged. Tonight he'll leave and it will all be over. Unless you're determined on doing something foolish, nothing can happen to you'."

2. "Sugar and Spice" (1943):
    "I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, nor anyone involved in a murder case. I admit that I am a snob, but to my mind crime is sordid and inevitably associated with gangsters, frustrated choir singers in dusty suburban towns, and starving old ladies supposed to have hidden vast fortunes in the bedsprings. I once remarked to a friend that people of our sort were not in the homicide set, and three weeks later heard that her brother-in-law had been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of his rich uncle. It was proved, however, that this was a hunting accident and the brother-in-law exonerated. But it gave me quite a jolt.
    "Jolt number two came when Mike Jordan, sitting on my patio on a Sunday afternoon, told me a story which proved that well-bred, middle-class girls can commit murder as calmly as I knit a sock, and with fewer lumps in the finished product."

3. "The Murder in the Stork Club" (1945):
    "The announcer spoke of the Stork Club murder:
    " '. . . according to Captain Mulvoy of the Homicide Squad, there can be no doubt as to the identity of the killer. Cherchez la femme. Find the woman in the mink coat.'
    "Joe snapped it off and returned to the bedroom. Sara edged toward him.
    " 'Joe, you don't think—' Her voice weakened. 'I may be a fool, but I couldn't do anything like that, Joe.'
    "He gave her his hand. 'All I know is if they discover that you were with him last night, you'll have the very hell of a time.'
    " 'But I didn't kill him.'
    " 'They'll book you just the same, suspicion of murder. You'll be treated as a suspect. No bail. No sleep. Lights. Mulvoy and his stooges questioning you twenty-four hours a day, trying to get a confession.' Joe's hand tightened around hers. 'I wouldn't want it to happen to my worst enemy. And Mulvoy won't make it any easier because you're my wife.'
    " 'Say that you don't believe it.'
    "Joe went to the dresser and took out clean things. 'There's only one way to clear you and that's to find the jerk who bumped off your boy friend. Maybe it's lucky you married a detective instead of a millionaire'."

4. "Ruth" (1968):
    "She would not let herself be glad, nor indulge in the luxury of nostalgia. Who but Johnnie could try to shoot a girl at night, and then try to flatter her at breakfast? She was more afraid of his charm than of the gun in the bed-table drawer."
- You can buy a copy of Laura HERE; the Crippen & Landru homepage is HERE; and a Wikipedia article about Vera Caspary is HERE.

Category: Feminist crime fiction

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