Review: Laura by Vera Caspary

Book Cover of Novel Laura by Vera Caspary

Laura [1943] ★★★★★

To solve the puzzle of [Laura’s death], [one] must first resolve the mystery of Laura’s life” [Vera Caspary, Houghton Mifflin/Vintage: 1942/2012: 16].

A beautiful and still aspiring socialite Laura Hunt is found murdered in her apartment in New York City. She allegedly opened the door to her murderer. A veteran detective Mark McPherson starts to investigate this tricky case, but soon finds out that few things make sense in Laura’s murder. Worse still, McPherson finds himself falling under the charms of Laura’s personality and her world as a number of possible murder suspects emerge, including Laura’s low-paid fiancé Shelby Carpenter and Laura’s friend, eccentric columnist Waldo Lydecker. It soon turns out that Shelby is a possible insurance beneficiary upon Laura’s death, and, then, someone also buys Laura’s portrait that hung on her apartment wall …could it have been the murderer? Clues are scattered throughout this clever mystery-noir, which also has a twist “to die for”.

Partly inspired by Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White [1859], Laura is narrated in the first person by several alternating and often unreliable narrators. This multiple-narrators perspective makes this noir novella so much brainier and more intriguing to read. Many character dialogues in Laura are a gold-mine. This is where the “battle of wits” takes place, with each of the characters being just a step away from uncovering the truth. Secrets are being spilled and weaknesses – probed as the characters engage in a dangerous psychological “cat and mouse” game, leading to some unexpected results. This mental combat is even more interesting to follow because the main characters could not have been more different from each other: manly, working-class, “no-nonsense” detective Mark McPherson goes head-to-head with the handsome “ladies’ man” Shelby Carpenter, and, then, with highly sophisticated, eminently-cultured and pompous Waldo Lydecker. Meanwhile, Laura Hunt could have found herself in the middle of these two extremes – she could have identified with McPherson since they both share “humble origins”, but she is also clearly already belonging to the high-flying world of Lydecker, while, also, paradoxically, “wearing career trousers” in her relationship with Carpenter.

The novel often asks this question: can Laura’s character shed light on the mysteries of her life and death, such as her popularity and her devotion to her friends? Or maybe even Laura’s rapid societal rise in New York can explain something? In a way, Caspary starts deconstructing a typical hard-boiled murder mystery, and the ingenuity of her characters is that they break out from their “stereotype” shells: Laura was no ordinary innocent “damsel in distress” to be rescued – she was an independent and successful “career” woman who was more than capable shuffling her male suitors as she so pleased, and McPherson is also not one’s typical cynical detective – he is interested in high culture and willing to discuss philosophical concepts alongside practical police matters. There is, of course, also endlessly-fascinating Waldo Lydecker, an eccentric essayist who has a way with words. His mind’s “acrobatics” and “imagination-bursts” are so interesting to follow that, in fact, when Waldo is briefly out of focus in this story, the novel almost loses its compelling force.

Laura is a very psychological novella, just on the basis of it being narrated by a number of people who all have their persons, sides of the story and “truths” to protect: “…in a way…we’re all gangsters. We all have our confederates and our sworn foes, our loyalties and our enmities. We have our pasts to shed and our futures to protect” [Caspary, Houghton Mifflin/Vintage: 1942/2012: 55]. On top of that, the novel is filled with witty observations, such as “self-centered people see only what they want to see”, and “no writer, however popular, disdains a reader however humble” [1942/2012: 7, 90], which may or may not lead or shed light on solving the mystery. Thus, a big part of this novel’s enjoyment is also to be found in all the little details: a turn of a phrase in one dialogue may incidentally reveal a hidden character trait, and one seemingly carelessly-thrown-in description may hint at the solution to the murder. Laura is also a quintessential NYC novel. Its story is enveloped in all of NYC’s obvious and hidden charms of the past: its characters ponder life and death seeing the morning fog engulfing the Manhattan Island, and their “battles of wits”, which I mentioned above, take place in buzzing Italian and Chinese restaurants over a chicken with Chianti or a plate of steamed dumplings.

Vera Caspary (1899 – 1987) was the author of such novels as The White Girl [1929], about a girl “passing” herself as white, and Bedelia [1945], that deconstructs a typical female role. In Laura, she produced a story where objectivity and subjectivity fuse, and where characters, while breaking stereotypes, are being ingeniously posed and manoeuvred as if pieces in a complicated game of chess. Laura is one punchy noir-mystery, which has been unfairly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart.

This review was written as part of the Novellas in November reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck.

17 thoughts on “Review: Laura by Vera Caspary

  1. And who can forget Otto Preminger’s movie with Gene Tierney and a very young Vincent Price.

    I wasn’t aware of the book though and am excited to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I love Tierney in that role. One small warning is that something tells me that those who first saw the film and fell in love with it may not look so favourably at this novel, and vice versa. I happened to love the book first, so, naturally, I find all sorts of things that are “wrong” with the film, but the biggest one for me – after reading the novel – would always be the cast of Clifton Webb as Lydecker!

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  2. “…can Laura’s character shed light on the mysteries of her life and death…”?

    Makes me think of the millions of young women for whom a similar aspiration did NOT result in death.

    Sometimes it seems ‘blame the victim’ time – when we know no one deserves to be murdered.

    I think I saw the movie – but it didn’t stick enough for me to remember what happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right, but a hint here is that this novella is also written by an independent “career” woman and some of Caspary’s other books were praised for their “feminist achievements”, so perhaps only some things in the story did not age well, especially considering some secondary characters.

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      1. I’m leaning more and more toward the FACT that the more complex the written work, the more of the author we get – because it can’t be hidden.

        Fiction is for pushing boundaries, I know. And real women get murdered all the time, for many reasons, so it is proper fodder for fiction. I wasn’t objecting to any of it, just wondering out loud.

        As a writer, I have to keep an eye on these things. It’s good for self-awareness and reflection – and more fiction.

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  3. I haven’t seen the film and your review has convinced me to add the book to my TBR wishlist. It sounds fascinating and it also sounds as though Caspary has caught the atmosphere of NYC well. The Manhattan morning fog and the ‘battles of wits’ over meals, make me quite nostalgic for my former home town.

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  4. I’ve often wondered about this book, but hadn’t realised it was a novella, which makes it even more appealing. Love the film, and saw it again only recently. Mesmerising, and I can imagine that the novella must be too.

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    1. Yes, my point was to bring attention to this book. Knowing how popular and well-known the film still is, I think the book is very under-read and even “forgotten”. I thought it was nuanced and have subtleties which the film could not possibly convey. That is what I often find in films based on books – they exaggerate and “overblow” characters and story events for a (visual) dramatic effect, whereas the novel is “freer” in that regard because our imagination is richer and we can set our own pace to a story, meaning we can savour each dialogue or description without any rush.

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      1. The novel is usually best I think … which is not to say films can’t be great. Sometimes it’s best to read the book OR see the film but not do both? They are different forms, after all, so a film is never, really, going to capture the novel. My feeling is that whenever I’ve liked a film better it’s because the novel had flaws.

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