Noir — from the French, er, noir, meaning “black” — is a label adopted by, or possibly foisted upon, the end of the crime fiction genre where things get appropriately murky: we have anti-heroes, moral bankruptcy, dodgy dealings, and possibly criminals getting away with things and the social order not necessarily restored. My Vintage edition of Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary showcases the New Yorker declaring this novel “Noir in a nutshell”…and that feels like a desperate bid to invite a female author into the sausage-fest that the annals of Noir tend to be. Because, honestly, Laura couldn’t be further from that promised noirsette if it tried…and I really do think it’s trying.
I don’t think Caspary set out to write a Noir novel here, because this falls to my eye into the realm of a sort of Domestic/Romantic Suspense hybrid — it’s honestly not much more than a pliant skinny woman in the arms of a muscular, shirtless dude on the cover away from being a radical new direction for Mills & Boon. If this were a movie — yes, I know it’s been made into a movie, I’m being allegorical — it’d be one of those cutesy New England/Vermont-set made-for-TV things with someone you vaguely recognise investigating some sort of crime maybe and then happening into some sort of neutered, heteronormative romance along the way that ends up being far more important in the script that the whiff of mystery plot sort of used to get it into a Master of Mystery season on ITV6+1 (no, non-UK readers, that’s not ITV7 — TV here is weird). In short, whether Caspary was trying to write a Noir or not — and she definitely wasn’t, screw the New Yorker — this ends up disappointing in all the right ways.
It’s especially disappointing because of how well it starts. with dahling writer Waldo Lydecker relating his visit from Detective Mark McPherson regarding the recent murder of Laura Hunt. Lydecker narrates the first section of the narrative, complete with fictional footnotes that reference his autobiography and a need to invest everything with an overly-emotional air that is delightfully handled and seems perfect for the Noir-tinged tale I was, at this point, expecting:
Although I spread butter lavishly on my brioches, I cling religiously to the belief that the substitution of saccharine in coffee will make me slender and fascinating.
Lydecker is the precise interfering old nanny who will contrive an air of detachment from a murder investigation and yet seek to intercalate himself into proceedings. So when he says “To solve the puzzle of her death, you must first resolve the mystery of her life…the activities of crooks and racketeers will seem simple in comparison” I took it to be the sort of drama-heavy, breathless declaration that someone of his ilk would make (c.f. “we live in a tiresome era wherein exercise is held sacred and heroes are always slender”).
When McPherson takes over the narrative about a third of the way in, the impression Lydecker has given of him as “hard coin metal who seeks to impose his own definite stamp upon those who seek to mould him” falls apart in about three pages when a fairly standard revelation knocks him for not so much six as 32 (“I had to battle my way through clouds before I could think like a human being”). At this point we’re surrounded by the trappings of your Standard American Noir — reluctant detective, fishy fiancé, hint of sexual scandal (“By the necromancy of modern journalism, a gracious young woman has been transferred into a dangerous siren who practiced her wiles in that fascinating neighborhood where Park Avenue meets Bohemia”) — but the rails shift for reason it’s a) not really fair to reveal here and yet b) pretty obvious to anticipate, and Mark McPherson becomes somewhat love-sick and obsessed over our murder victim, and the book never really recovers.
Caspary keeps mixing the narrators and style of delivery — the third section is the impersonal transcript of a police interview — but there’s nothing of the cynicism that I’d hoped for. Everything’s just sort of fine, if a little irritating and inconveniencing to our characters where the murder investigation is concerned, and then it all resolves with the sort of development that presages the shift the genre was going to take into the false wilds of Domestic Suspense before everything is tied up neatly and the killer is found, dismissed as possibly a bit weird but no harm done, and then the credits roll over swelling music. It would be remiss of me told hold against Caspary that someone else promised me this was a Noir novel, but my issues with it run a bit deeper than that. Chiefly, the problem with having this sort of “oh, but she’s so fascinating” central character is that often they’re not, and Laura Hunt never convinces as someone anyone would give two hoots about besides being young and conventionally bohemian. She’s the equivalent of someone claiming to be “really nerdy” because they own a Star Wars t-shirt, and is about a plectrum away from being the guy who brings his acoustic guitar to your house party.
As such, the plot which never really gets going around her didn’t ever convince me to take any interest in her, and so McPherson making puppy eyes at the contents of her apartment and suddenly falling under he spell because it’s vaguely modernistic and has a few books on some shelves becomes the sort of lazy wish-fulfilment that posited movie above represents. With so much modern teen fiction falling prey to a sort of wistful “Wow, that could be me…” hopefulness where bland protagonists are concerned, Laura is very much their grandmother: a lacklustre parvenu of telling you someone’s wonderful and worth all this effort into whom no effort is put, the calm eye of a storm that blows itself out. Forgive me if I’m not bowled over with euphoria.
A bit of cynicism somewhere in here would have helped things along no end, and the occasional trenchant observation amidst the generally high standard of prose is appreciated, but it’s mainly a bland story where the author wants to ensure Laura is as happy as possible. I can, in that respect, understand why it’s a book that might find traction today, since its inward-looking self-satisfaction fits perfectly with the idiom of those The Girl Who Saw a Window Over The Place Where The Thing Happened thrillers presently drowning the market, with mild inconvenience giving way to Everything Being Fine and Now I’m Happier and A Better Person As a Result. Give me the disinterested social milieu of GAD any day, all this Noir-vel gazing ain’t my scene.