“The editorial department was a garden of nepotism. Poor relations blossomed all over the place.”
There’s a great deal of Vera Caspary’s professional life in the crime novel Stranger than Truth, and so the title which could reflect the author’s experiences may have more than one meaning. This is the story of a murder and its solution, but the author takes a different approach, so that the crime, told through a range of voices, isn’t solved by the police or by a PI. Originally published in 1946, Stranger than Truth is back in print for the kindle after almost disappearing from the radar. Vera Caspary was a fascinating woman who lived through some interesting times, so for those who’d like to know more about Caspary, her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups is highly recommended. The blurb for the recently released kindle version calls Caspary’s autobiography “captivating,” and that’s really no exaggeration. But if you’re read Laura and Bedelia and you want to delve a little deeper into Caspary’s body of work, then that brings us to a lesser work, Stranger than Truth.
John Miles Ansell works for Barclay–Truth Publications. Millionaire Noble Barclay owns this large firm which publishes many different magazines, including Truth and Crime, Truth and Love, Truth and Health, and Truth and Beauty. When the novel opens, John, the new editor of Truth and Crime is rushing to meet a publication deadline, when he receives notice that his story concerning the murder of a man named Warren G. Wilson, a middle-aged recluse with an unexplained income stream, has been rejected.
I had recently become editor of Truth and Crime, and was still new enough to believe I could improve the magazine. Truth and Crime was just another of the fact-detective magazines, filled with hashed-over newspaper stuff and old police-blotter cases, served up with sensational titles and pious crime-does-not-pay endings. The Wilson story has no ending, so I decided to use it as an Unsolved Mystery of the Month.
John doesn’t understand the reason behind the rejection–after all he was hired by Barclay at $125 a week to “lift the magazine out of its present rut,” and that’s just what John is trying to do. Truth and Crime selects one unsolved crime for each issue, and John, rather than follow the regular format of rehashing a well-known cold crime, has written the piece on the recent murder of Wilson. John is intrigued by the story as Wilson is a bit of mystery man, “no criminal,” and yet a man who died violently, and curiously, a man who, according to the IRS does not exists. The story was pending approval for weeks, and now at the last minute, it’s rejected which leaves John angry for an explanation. This anger leads to John confronting Noble Barclay and his right hand man, the very creepy Edward Everett Munn. There’s the definite sense that Munn, in spite of his nice suit and job title, is there to perform any dirty work that his boss Noble Barclay wants. And as for Noble Barclay, the Guru of Truth, he may appear to be a very reasonable man, but behind that façade of benign, charismatic pleasantry, lurks a Totalitarian.
Noble Barclay is a self-made man, a millionaire who reinvented himself, wrote the inspirational book self-help, My Life is Truth and created an immensely successful publishing empire after a successful battle with alcohol. There’s something a little false about Barclay’s mantra about seeking the truth, and for a man who swears by speaking the truth, he’s much happier throwing distractions at John than explaining why the story was rejected.
After a close brush with death, John is offered a large raise and a promotion as the editor of Truth Digest, “truth in tabloid.” John takes the job and the raise but he’s still determined to discover the truth behind the Wilson murder. In the meantime, he finds himself becoming involved with Barclay’s daughter, Eleanor–a girl unhealthily devoted to her father. And what on earth happened to Eleanor’s mother?
One of the best characters in the book is Lola Manfred, a one time-poetess whose hair is “dyed the color of a Christmas tangerine.” Lola now works in Truth and Love, swigs whiskey hidden in a milk bottle, and despises “the modern Messiah,” Noble Barclay and Truth Publications. Lola and John find they share common ground as they both refuse to drink the Barclay-Truth Publishing cool-aid, yet in spite of Lola’s criticisms of her employer, she understands his mass appeal, and his apparent sincerity when it comes to his “formula for health and happiness” which he is ready to roll out to any listener if given the slightest conversational opening. Lola argues that Noble Barclay isn’t motivated by sincerity but by self-promotion and self-interest.
We are surrounded by people who can believe in anything sincerely as long as it brings them a good living. Fascists believe in Fascism, don’t they, especially the big ones whose attitudes pay a profit? There’s nothing in the world, my friend, so sincere as self-interest.
Stranger than Truth, in spite of a couple of stiffs and a poisoning, lacks tension. What’s interesting here is Caspary’s presentation of a different type of crime embedded into the phenomenally successful echelons of Truth Publishing, the way one man through “the poor man’s psychoanalysis” creates and controls a workplace environment, and the sly references to the author’s early career in correspondence schools and advertising. Stranger than Truth was written several years after a disillusioned Vera Caspary left the Communist Party. Was Stranger than Truth, in its portrayal of a workplace environment in which employees were indoctrinated into a specific way of thinking, a metaphor for life under Stalin?
*The vintage cover shown is of an abridged version, but the e-version is not abridged.