Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Murder in the Stork Club: Review

Vera Caspary wrote the short novel The Murder in the Stork Club as a result of an idea by Herbert Mayes, editor of Good Housekeeping. During a nine-week stop in New York City--waiting for a passport so she could go to England to write the screenplay for a British production of her novel Bedelia--Good Housekeeping paid all her expenses and for her dinners at the Stork Club so she could soak up the atmosphere for the story. And it shows...luminaries such as Walter Winchell, Dorothy Lamour, Tallulah Bankhead and Frank Sinatra (among others) all make cameo appearances in Caspary's story of a murder that seems to take place right in front of everyone who was anyone in the 1940s.

The victim is a man named Henry Thoreau Pendleton-- a rich man who loves women and wine and when full of the latter will gladly tell stories of the ladies he had loved and lost. As the novel says: "He was [only] thirty-nine but age could not wither, nor custom stale, the infinite variety of his love affairs." And he didn't mind who knew about them. In fact, he had recently revealed to Walter Winchell that he intended to publish a book made up entirely of the love letters he had received over the course of his romantic exploits. Hot stuff and steamy reading...or so he claimed.

Pendleton had arrived at the Stork Club to have dinner with a mysterious lady in mink. Everyone knew that he just recently been thrown over and they all were curious who this latest conquest was. But nobody recognized her. Which in the Stork Club was odd. But odder still was the fact that after dining alone with her, Pendleton went home and promptly died from nicotine poisoning. Did the woman in fur doctor his coffee before leaving his table for the night? Or perhaps it was his ex-wife who stopped by for a friendly chat before his date arrived? Maybe Winchell had a secret axe to grind? Sherman Billingsley, owner of the club, has also stopped by the table that night.

Unfortunately, since Pendleton waited to pass on until he was out of the club, there is no real evidence of how the poison was delivered. And the police are left wondering while they search for the unknown woman. Which suits Joe Collins, private detective, just fine. He knows who the mysterious lady is and he's determined to find out who the real killer is before the police discover that it was is wife who shared Pendleton's table that night. [That's no spoiler, by the way. We know who the mystery lady is in chapter two.]

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. A delightful entry for both my Dangerous Beasts Theme for the Vintage Challenge and for the What an Animal Challenge (among others). Four stars.

*One of three short novels in a 3-in-1 Detective Book Club edition.

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