Do you like reading short stories? If you say you don't, or think you don't but haven't really tried many, let me direct you to Vera Caspary's "Sugar and Spice" (originally published in 1943), which is this week's selection from Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives and by far my favorite so far. It's a bit longer than many stories at roughly fifty pages and one of the longest stories in this collection. It's excellent. It's well developed and is a satisfying read--short enough to read in an afternoon but long enough to feel like you've been somewhere and seen something. This is no fluffy éclair of a story rather more akin to a bowl of thick oatmeal that will stick to your ribs.
Vera Caspary was nowhere on my reading radar prior to this story. I must have come across her famous work, Laura, at some point but not given it much thought. Since finishing the story I have ordered three of her novels. She wrote more then a dozen novels, ten screenplays (she must have been quite talented in that area as she was paid as much as $150,000 for her adaptations--no small sum in the 1940s and 50s!), four stage plays but only a smattering of short stories. According to the introduction to the story much of her work "focused on a woman's right to lead her own life, no matter the costs or the motives of others, especially men."
Although "Sugar and Spice" might easily be categorized as a mystery, the story still focuses on the psychology of two women and their desire to be independent and find happiness--unfortunately a man gets in the way of things. In this case it is two women, cousins, who have something of a rivalry going on growing up. One is beautiful but poor and the other plainer but rich. Caspary turns the story on its ear so to speak in several regards. The story is told by a third party just as the crime has happened and is being investigated, the reader's perceptions of what each woman is like and capable of is questioned time and again, and the final resolution while not entirely surprising is certainly suspensefully drawn out and I wondered several times just whether I had guessed right or not.
"I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, nor anyone involved in a murder case. I admit 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."
So speaks the narrator at the start of the story. Lissa is a friend of a friend of the two women who are suspected of murdering a young, attractive actor. She sits on her California patio with Mike Jordan who has just arrived in time for brunch needing to use her phone to make a long distance call to New York. Just who he's calling and why will be revealed at the end. He tells her the story of two "well-bred, middle class girls [who] can commit murder as calmly as I knit a sock, and with fewer lumps in the finished product." You never find anything out about Lissa, she's just peripherally important in the story, but it's all funneled through her in the telling.
Mike Jordan, a writer, first met Phyllis Coles and Nancy Miller as a student. It's many years later that the two women are suspected of having murdered Gil Jones, and he knows who did it. from that first revelation, on Lissa's patio sometime during the War, the story moves back in time to how MIke met the two women and his history with them. Mike may know, or thinks he knows, who the killer really is, but he's not exactly as perceptive as he believes as the last line of the story shows.
This is why I like reading short stories. Most are pretty good, many are really good, and then now and again one comes along like this one that sweeps you off your feet and you become part of the story--a fly on the wall anyway. Vera Caspary is one of my great finds so far this year. Even if short stories are not your thing, do give this one a try--especially if you like well told, suspenseful tales!
Next up is a story by Helen Nielsen.
This week's New Yorker story "The Frog Prince" is as short as the Caspary story was long. It's just one page and after reading Robert Coover's take on the story, maybe I need to go back and reread it. It is a retelling, or reimagining as he calls it, of the fairy tale. Maybe the licking of the frog just put me off too much. Does that sound weird? You'll have to read the story (or at least the brief Q&A) to get my meaning. I do like the illustration that goes with it, however (you can see it by clicking through the link).