#626: Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary

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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.

16 thoughts on “#626: Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary

  1. I am not sure that enough of a distinction is being made here between Noir and hard boiled. Goodis is Noir but Chandler hardboiled- yes? This is much more if a romantic, high society tale to be considered either really, I agree. You could never mistake Caspary for Patricia Highsmith for instance! It’s been adapted for the screen several times but the original movie on the other hand, due to its photographic style and use of narration, definitely belongs to the first years of Film Noir when it was emerging as a style / movement / subgenre.

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    • Hmmm, interesting — so is there a chance that the novel is being conflated with the movie in terms of its Noir credentials? This is the equivalent of “I’ve never read any Agatha Christie but I love David Suchet as Poirot!”, right? 🙂

      I agree with you where, Chandler is concerned; he has waaaay too much investment in the nature of justice and the balancing of books be Noir. A jaded protagonist does not a Noir novel make, in the same way that calling your character a detective does not make it a novel of detection.

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  2. I did wonder if this would have strayed a little too far from the sort of mystery novel you like, and given the overlap in our tastes – I think I shall give this one a miss! Thanks for the review.

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    • I’m keen to not read myself into too narrow a stream, and every so often something that shouldn’t be to my taste turns out delightful — see Family Matters, The Voice of the Corpse, etc. It this, yeah, I can’t say I’d expect anyone to get much out of it unless they’re hankering after some domestic/romantic suspense. And even that’s pushing it…

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  3. I have to echo Sergio here. I have not read the book, but I don’t think we can lump Vera Caspary with the likes of Patricia Highsmith or the other dark writers. She was more like Daphne DuMaurier, focusing on romance and creating strong women. Wikipedia says this of her:

    Though she claimed she was not a “real” mystery writer, her novels effectively merged women’s quest for identity and love with murder plots. Independence is the key to her protagonists, with her novels revolving around women who are menaced, but who turn out to be neither victimized nor rescued damsels.

    Certainly, the movie contains many of the tropes of Film Noir and is included in most discussions of the genre. Personally, I think it veers away from it at the point when . . . er, that surprising development, er, develops. Then the hero no longer is an obsessed man, doomed to love a dead girl, and the killer is routed and a happy ending is ensured. That’s not really noir, but then the film appears on the early side of the sub-genre. An even earlier film, The Maltese Falcon (1941) feels much more noir-ish to me.

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    • Sounds like the film is similar to the book in the point where it becomes clear that what you’re not getting is the kind of tale sold in the opening section. And Caspary may just be having fun with genre expectations, and so is hardly to blame, but it’s a shame to see the publishers of this edition playing up to a sort of populist mindset. Mis-labelling this as Noir does no-one any favours, least of all Caspary — I surely can’t be the only one to come to this expecting something very different on what the covers promise.

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  4. Loved the film, liked the book. Caspary’s writing style and plots are ok . . . interesting and entertaining to an extent but not real Hall of Fame material. Laura is an example of when the film is better than the book. . . sort of like Gone With the Wind.

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      • You really should see the movie. And it has a classic theme tune too. And I’ll bet you anything it’ll be better than the upcoming adaptation of THE PALE HORSE if it follows in their recent trail of doom-laden Christie specials.

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        • I’m hoping that this adaptation of The Pale Horse finally puts in all the sexual angst that Agatha Christie definitely, definitely intended. Hopefully Mark Easterbrook and Ariadne Oliver will spend at least half the time being fiercely attracted to each other, and he’ll visit several low-rent prostitutes — probably in gloomy boarding houses, all of them with Cockney accents thick enough to stand a bicycle on — in an attempt to put her out of his mind. There will be lots of long, lingering shots of him staring at himself in the mirror, and all the while Mrs. Oliver will be engaging in sexual dalliances in, I dunno, let’s say railways stations with porters and other low-paid serfs to bring home the plight of the common man.

          Mark will dream of a pale horse — a symbolism of death — and then wake up suddenly, still in the arms of that low-rent Cock-er-nee slattern, and probably, I dunno, start crying with self-loathing. And the it will turn out he was the killer all along. because he’s too privileged or something something parallels with the early 21st century.

          Fingers crossed…!!!

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  5. To vehemently counter your claim that you think “no one would get anything out of this book” I will say I did. A LOT! I was astonished at how different the book is from the movie (a favorite of mine that I’ve seen many times) and that the book addresses so many fascinating themes and does it so well.

    Was there an intro to this edition? I’m confused by that remark you make about the “My edition showcases the New Yorker”. Do you simply mean that it was a quote on the back cover used as a selling point?

    Laura, the novel, is not noir. If there was an introduction it should have told you that Laura was originally a play, that it failed to get produced on Broadway and that Caspary wanted it to reach the world and thought about turning it into a novel. One of her friends told her to look at The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and she did. That’s why it is structured with multiple narrative viewpoints. to follow on this hypothetical intro I think the intro writer should’ve talked about the obvious themes being explored about obsessive love, illusions of beauty both male and female (Shelby is the male equivalent of Laura, hypermasculine to the extreme as she is supposedly hyperfeminine), and the interesting bits about a woman making a name for herself in big business. Then maybe you’d have been looking for what actually exists in the book rather than hunting for an elusive quality that never manifests itself. Like what Mark McPherson and Waldo Lydecker both do.

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    • Not sure where I said that no-one would get anything out of it, but there’s little here beyond the standard domestic suspense and the absolute assurance of a happy ending from about a third of the way in — so a sympathy for that sort of approach certainly helps. I’m not holding it’s un-Noir-ness against it, but I do find it odd that the publishers would put a reputable publication on the cover — yes, sorry, I appreciate now that wasn’t clear — promising the exact type of book it’s not ever trying to be. That would be like a new edition of And Then There Were None with a quote from The Telegraph shouting “Virtuoso detection!”.

      There’s no introduction, but one containing the points you make would definitely improve the experience. At the very least, it would give the reader more of an idea of the background for the novel, which is always appreciated. Its origins in The Moonstone actually make a ton of sense, and I could have read the introduction — which I tend to do with books when I’m unfamiliar with the author — and known straight away that it wasn’t for me. The Moonstone, after all, isn’t detection, and Laura isn’t detection or Noir. I could have saved both money and time!

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