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.