Book Review: Vera Caspary’s Laura

Below is a blog post written by one of the Continuing Education students on my course The Female Dick: Women in Crime Fiction.  Viewing the blog as a platform for critical analysis and discussion, I set ‘blog posts’ as assignments for my classes. We’ve had some very interesting insights from students who are new to blogging. Here’s a great piece on Laura:

laura-by-vera-caspary-one-of-the-top-10-classic-crime-books-of-all-time

The setting is Laura’s elegant apartment in summertime, New York. Detective Mark McPherson puffs on his pipe and gazes in admiration at her captivating portrait as he investigates her apparent violent death. The body was discovered inside the front door, shortly before her wedding, her face cruelly destroyed by a shotgun blast. Laura was intelligent and attractive with a successful career in advertising. She was generous with her money, took time to listen to anyone with troubles and was adored by all who knew her. McPherson focuses on the two current men in her life – tanned, muscular fiancé, Shelby Carpenter and wealthy, self- important columnist , Waldo Lydecker. Shortly after Waldo accuses McPherson of falling in love with a dead woman – in strides Laura to the melodramatic accompaniment of a thunderstorm! Laura explains the dead woman was in fact Diane Redfern, a young model occupying her flat and wearing her clothes while she spent a weekend alone in the country. The living Laura joins the list of suspects and McPherson needs to unravel the tangled web of lies and evasions.

The characters come to life as the story develops and we see them through different eyes as the role of narrator switches between the various chief suspects and the detective. Laura is struggling to combine relationships with her career and independence. She remains very fond of the middle aged, narcissistic Waldo, who took her under his wing for eight years. While she changes from “a gauche child to a gracious New Yorker” her former lover becomes a father figure. Any other relationships that survived the over-protectiveness of Bessie, her devoted maid, would succumb to the acerbic criticism of Waldo, master of the art of insincere flattery followed by a vicious put-down! Only Shelby, the irresponsible, poverty-stricken philanderer persisted. Waldo’s white, flabby obesity compares unfavourably with Shelby’s impressive physique. Both Waldo and Shelby belong to a previous Golden Age and it is not surprising that Laura is having second thoughts. Waldo loves her too much and Shelby too little. She is a modern woman in a man’s world where “dolls and dames” are much misunderstood. For example, Waldo warns McPherson “The activities of crooks and racketeers will seem simple to you in comparison with the motives of a modern woman.”

Laura has strong feelings for the straight talking but sensitive and imaginative McPherson. Our hero and heroine are well-matched. Lying somewhere between the old world charm of golden age detectives such as Poirot and hard-boiled types like Sam Spade, our hero prefers psychology to forensic science. Waldo asks “Why don’t you go out and take some fingerprints?” Despite having few tangible clues, McPherson responds “There are times in the investigation of a crime when it’s more important to look at faces.” His strategy proves successful as he skilfully draws out secret thoughts and unconscious behaviour which finally lead him to the truth – just in time to save Laura’s life.

The author is ahead of her time in exploring the effect of power, control and obsessive love on Laura, who is far from a helpless victim. We understand Laura better as Caspary allows her readers to be tricked by the charming veneer and wrongly assume benevolence but Laura never changes her views. Does this make her a poor judge of character or does her understanding, non-judgemental approach to people make her vulnerable to predators as well as popular?

Caspary had a successful career in copywriting for an advertising agency before becoming a novelist and Hollywood scriptwriter. Her personal experience lends authenticity to the novel which was written in the early forties. It is difficult to criticise such an accomplished author and any mild irritation that I feel about Laura’s vagueness and inability to give a straight answer is balanced by an increased sense of mystery and drama. As in the words of Waldo Lydecker, speaking when Laura was presumed dead: “It’s the contradictions that make her seem alive to you. Life itself is contradictory. Only death is consistent.”

By Bryony Welch

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This entry was posted in 2013, Courses, Crime Fiction, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Book Review: Vera Caspary’s Laura

  1. Pingback: A student’s take on Vera Caspary’s Laura « The Venetian Vase

  2. Sarah says:

    A great idea to get your students blogging. There are some very good and well informed discussions taking place in the blogging world, on both modern and classic crime fiction. Bryony’s post is very good.

    I haven’t read the book but I’m often surprised when I read US women writers from this period as to how different they are from English writers. Margaret Millar, Jean Potts and Frances Crane inhabit a different world which make their books so enjoyable to a modern audience.

    I’m looking forward to other posts…..

  3. Peter says:

    Like many people I know the movie but not the book, so it was interesting to get this perspective. I particularly agree with this part: ‘Both Waldo and Shelby belong to a previous Golden Age and it is not surprising that Laura is having second thoughts. Waldo loves her too much and Shelby too little. She is a modern woman in a man’s world where “dolls and dames” are much misunderstood.’

    Laura is at times a frustratingly passive character in the movie, although that’s partly because of Clifton Webb’s ability to steal every scene he’s in. It sounds like she had a little more agency in the book.

    At any rate, I can see what you mean about both book and movie being a transitional work between Golden Age and hardboiled/noir. She’s half a noir femme fatale, in that male obsession with her is what drives the plot, but she doesn’t do much to deliberately exploit it. Joan Fontaine in Rebecca is somewhat similar.

    • Diana Powell says:

      Thanks for commenting, Peter. Yes, I would agree with the Rebecca comparison. Even the haunting is similar, with the dead Laura/Diane Redfern being more the femme fatale than the living one. Diana

  4. Pingback: Women in Scandinavian and British Crime Fiction | Prevailing Westerlies

  5. Linda Squeri says:

    What a fine review. Did anyone else find it distracting that she had McPherson throwing logs on the fire even though it is the last week of August in New York City in a third-floor apartment?

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