The Murder in the Stork Club (2009) by Vera Caspary

The Murder in the Stork Club by Vera Caspary

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“A detective, like a doctor, should not operate on members of his own family.”

A young wife suspects her houseguest of being a Nazi spy…The lifelong rivalry between two cousins leads to murder, but which woman is guilty?…When death strikes a famous nightclub, the detective’s marriage may become the final casualty…And a woman fights for her life, knowing that the would-be killer is her own former husband. These are the stories through which Vera Caspary’s sophisticated suspense explores questions of gender, social class, and politics.

Caspary is known today as the author of feminist crime novels such as Laura. However, she also wrote extensively for magazines, and four of these novellas are collected in The Murder in the Stork Club.

“Stranger in the House” (1943) 4/10 stars

As the pampered wife of a rich, older husband, Alice Remsen has learned that George doesn’t like it when she expresses her own opinions. In fact, she’s almost learned not to have any. But when a stranger from Germany rings the doorbell, claiming to be a friend of her husband, Alice must remember how to think and act for herself—and in a hurry.

There are some interesting concepts discussed here, in particular the dangerous complacency of Americans who think fascism is something that happens somewhere else. A lifelong political activist, Caspary may have been poking fun at herself through the character of Alice’s anti-fascist friend Dan, who ruefully observes, “Back in ’33 I made my first world-shaking speech. Consider the world in ’42. That will show you what I’ve accomplished.”

The moral of the story is a bit more nuanced, and applies to all aspects of Alice’s situation: “As the world is today, it’s a sin for anyone to accept any attitude blindly.” The ending is also surprisingly brutal, with some effective domestic suspense moments. Overall, however, the writing is just a little too pat to do justice to some of the ideas that are raised.

Sugar and Spice (1943) 6/10 stars

It’s only natural to make comparisons when two female cousins are so close in age. Homely Nancy has all the money and poverty-stricken Phyllis has all the beauty. Their hometown friend Mike Jordan watches them through the years, competing over everything, but mostly men. When Phyllis nearly dies from poisoned sleeping pills, no one is sure what to think. It seems the cousins’ feud could not get worse. But things can always get worse…

The Murder in the Stork Club by Vera CasparyDespite the dark subject matter, Sugar and Spice is mostly light in tone. The reader, like Phyllis and Nancy’s friends, observes their decade-long catfight with detached amusement until it gets very serious, very quickly. Though stationed far away in California, Mike feels he’s witnessed enough interactions between Phyllis and Nancy to solve the crime. In a charmingly old-fashioned touch, he tells the whole story to his hostess Lissa during the endless wait for a long-distance call to New York to be put through, and it’s not until that call that the solution is revealed. As he recounts his tale, Mike is sometimes shocked by the viciousness of the women’s rivalry, but Lissa never is. She recognizes every little humiliation, from the hand-me-down dress to the stolen boyfriend, as some of the most potent weapons in a woman’s arsenal. Why resort to murder, when there are so many other ways to kill?

The Murder in the Stork Club (1945) 7/10 stars

Radio writer Sara Haworth’s night of fun at the Stork Club is going downhill fast. Her ex-boyfriend Henry threatens to publish her love letters just before dying of poison. Suddenly, all of New York is looking for the “woman in mink” who was with him that evening. With the help of Joe Collins, her police detective husband, Sara must track down the killer before she finds herself in an even more exclusive club: prison.

Joe persuades Sherman Billingsley (the real-life owner of the Stork Club) to hire him as a private investigator. Over the course of the inquiry, however, Joe learns a lot about his wife’s past and the world she comes from—a world of wealth and privilege that couldn’t be farther from his own working-class background. Joe is bothered that Sara earns more money than he does; Sara is sometimes exasperated by Joe’s lack of polish. Until now, their whirlwind romance and wartime separation have kept them from having to deal with these issues, but Henry’s murder raises a number of uncomfortable questions.

The Stork Club

The Stork Club proves to be ground zero for any number of financial, social, and sexual anxieties. Those on the outside envy its patrons for gaining entry to this glamorous playground. Once inside, though, the ambitious socialites discover even more hurdles to jump. They are all performing for each other, jockeying for the best tables or the most elite dining rooms, all the while surrounded by people who appear to be richer, more beautiful, or simply having more fun. Here, the fur coat Sara bought herself, which has caused so much tension with Joe, is dismissed as nothing more than a “cheap mink.” When everyone in the room has a mink, the difference between a $3,000 coat and a $20,000 one can mean everything.

The contrast between the glittering public face of the club and the messiness behind the scenes is fascinating. When Joe worries that Sara will be annoyed if he stays out late with a beautiful suspect, his client Billngsley is sure that one of the Stork Club’s famously extravagant party favors will square things with the little woman.

They entered a room, and Billingsley turned on the light. Joe blinked. A modern Sinbad would have considered himself lucky to be admitted to this dazzling cave. It was like the storeroom of a costly and careless gift shop. There was no attempt at order…Rare French brandy, French perfume in crystal containers larger than the brandy bottles, alligator handbags, beaded and embroidered purses, gold bracelets, bangles, anklets, pocket knives, cigarette cases, pen-and-pencil sets of solid gold, jeweled compacts, cuff links, hosiery, platinum money clips, pins, brooches, studs, neckties of prewar French silk, radios in reptile cases.

Billingsley turned slowly. “What would you give a debutante who’s here for her hundredth consecutive night?”

“A padded cell,” Joe suggested.

This orgy of consumption echoes the luxurious disarray of the suspects’ secret  lives, and the backstage dynamics at the club also play a role in solving the crime.

The Murder in the Stork Club is the most fully realized novella in this collection. Joe’s personality and insecurities come through strongly. Though she has her feisty moments, Sara remains largely a cipher. It’s disappointing that she doesn’t participate much in the investigation.. This should be the story of a marriage, a husband and wife who are forced by murder to confront each other’s differences for the first time. The fact that it is mostly the husband’s feelings being explored in depth leaves this otherwise excellent mystery feeling lopsided.

Ruth (1967) 2/10 stars

Ruth’s ex-husband thinks he killed her tonight. He’s wrong. But in order to stay alive, Ruth needs him to believe his murder attempt succeeded. She spends a long night alone in her apartment, playing dead while reflecting on their troubled marriage.

Ruth by Vera CasparyThis is…not good. Witness the star-crossed romance between Johnnie, who has already made his “basic million” and Ruth, a world-famous greeting card artist at twenty-three. Eventually Ruth starts to worry about all those financial documents Johnnie had her sign when they first got married. Maybe she should have read them? I hope you’re very interested in these papers, because about 50 percent of the story is devoted to them. It ends with a bizarre twist that’s somehow no more ridiculous than anything else that’s happened.

Ruth tries to pack too much into too few pages. Instead of letting the relationship between Ruth and Johnnie unfold organically, Caspary simply rattles off a list of all the things they did and felt, in mind-numbing detail. As a result, their emotions never seem real. Still, I hesitate to suggest that Ruth needed to be longer, since the best thing about it is that it’s over quickly.

Like all anthologies, The Murder in the Stork Club is a mixed bag, but a pleasant one on the whole. I was glad to have the chance to read two very good novellas without having to dig through back issues of Good Housekeeping. Then again, I also had the chance to read Ruth, the story of a killer who can’t tell the different between a living person and a wig on a pillow. Win some, lose some.

Second Opinion

My Reader’s Block

The story is a three-way game of cat-and-mouse with Collins and his wife trying to stay off the official radar while the murderer tries to hide from both parties. It is fairly clued and a nice little view of life in New York during the war years. As has been true with both Laura and Evvie (top-notch full-length mysteries), the characters are well-drawn and I enjoyed Joe and his wife Sara very much.


The Murder in the Stork Club (also published as The Lady in Mink) has appeared as a standalone, but is now out of print.

Ruth was published in 1972 (presumably an expanded version, as the one included here is barely 40 pages). It is also out of print.

This edition, The Murder in the Stork Club and Other Mysteries, was issued as part of Crippen and Landru’s Lost Classics series but is no longer in print. However, the ebook is available in the UK from the Murder Room.

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