Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Laura: Vera Caspary

I came to the novel Laura by Vera Caspary by two routes. Not too long ago, I purchased the two volume set from Library of America titled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. One of the nine novels in this set is Laura. When 1943 was selected to be the year for the Crimes of the Century meme for February 2017, I decided it was time to read this book.

I had avoided this novel for years. Although I had never seen the movie based on the book, I thought I knew the story, and assumed the story was spoiled for me. That was a mistake; even if I did know one or two main points of the story, there was much there to surprise me and I loved the way the story was told. Laura is a wonderful read and not to be missed.

In this novel, Laura Hunt, a successful career woman working for an advertising firm, has been murdered in her apartment. She was shot at close range with BB shot as she opened the door of her apartment to a visitor. Mark McPherson starts his investigation of the case by interviewing the two men who cared for her most, Waldo Lydecker, her friend and mentor, and Shelby J. Carpenter, her fiance.

For the most part, Laura is narrated in the first person by several different characters. The first section starts off with Waldo Lydecker's description of his meeting with Mark McPherson. Waldo is a middle-aged, overweight journalist who gave Laura her start in advertising. The second section is narrated by McPherson as he continues working the case. Another section is a "stenographic report of the statement made by Shelby J. Carpenter to Lieutenant McPherson."

I enjoy stories with alternating narrators, and Vera Caspary handles that aspect very well. Caspary also explores feminist themes. Laura has struggled with the conflicts of balancing a demanding career and a fulfilling love life. That is difficult for women today, but in the 1940's it was much more so.

How does this book reflect the year it was published? Actually the story was published first as a 7-part serial in 1942 titled Ring Twice for Laura. It was published in novel form the next year. While reading the book, I did not notice much evidence of the time. However, there is this reference to the war when McPherson looks for a newspaper article about Laura's death:
"There was nothing on Page One. A new battle on the Eastern Front and a speech by Churchill had pushed her off the front pages. I turned to Page Four. There was her picture..."

A year after the book was published, the film adaptation starring Dana Andrews as the detective and Gene Tierney as Laura was released. The problem with my viewing of the film is that I watched it too soon after reading the book. important characters in the book are written and portrayed much differently in the film, and I kept noticing those differences too much to fully enjoy the movie. In the film, Waldo Lydecker is portrayed as Laura's Pygmalion, teaching her about society and manners. In the book, this may be implied but not so strongly. Laura's aunt is also portrayed quite differently in the film. On the other hand, Vincent Price as Laura's fiance fit the role closely enough for me.

However, having said that, I do think the movie is very well done and very entertaining. It just does not convey the depth of the book at all. I won't say more than that because if you haven't seen the movie or read the book, I don't want to spoil the fun.

I confess that I bought another edition of Laura, published by The Feminist Press. It is a part of the Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series, which restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century. This edition of Laura has a foreward titled "Women Write Pulp" and an afterward exploring Vera Caspary's life and fiction by A. B. Emrys. In my opinion, the essay at the end of the book is worth the price of admission.


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Publisher:    The Feminist Press, 2005 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:        194 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        New York
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copies.

24 comments:

  1. Tracy, I have not read multiple first-person narratives, so I'm not sure how well it comes through as one reads the book or if there is a disconnect.

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    1. Prashant, I like books with multiple narrators (or multiple points of view) so it worked well for me. I read in multiple places that she based her approach on how Wilkie Collins structured THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Which makes me want to read that, but I have avoided it since it is so long.

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  2. Laura is one of my all-time fave movies, the book has an interesting NYC 40s career girl feminist vibe but I still prefer the movie.The theme song, Gene Tierney. Webb as Lydecker.., all fabulous!

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    1. Nancy, I think if I had watched the movie first I would prefer it over the book. Part of my difficulty was the difference in the Lydecker character, and if I had seen Webb as Lydecker first, it might have made a difference. I liked both though.

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  3. I'm really, really glad you enjoyed this one, Tracy. It's always interesting to see differences between book and film, and I know just what you mean about seeing a film right after (or before) reading the book. Still, I think both are good. And I have fond personal memories of Laura, too; it was my mother-in-law's fave film.

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    1. I am just amazed, Margot, that I had not seen the movie before. Since both my husband and I like to watch old movies. And I am glad I finally got around to reading the book and that it was such a good experience. I want to read more by Caspary but not sure what.

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  4. I'm currently reading the book so how timely. I enjoyed the movie but have heard the same about the book's depth. I'll be back to share my thoughts. --Keishon

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    1. Yes, that is good timing, Keishon. I want to know what you think about the book. I was pleasantly surprised, myself.

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  5. Fascinating Tracy - I have only ever seen the film. Really looking forward to finding the book now.

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    1. Sergio, you should definitely read the book. Even if you don't love it like I did, it is still worth reading.

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  6. Not one I have heard of - either book or film. Sounds interesting, but hey too much already on my plate. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Boy do I understand about too much on your plate, Col. Even with reading mostly short stories in February, I am still way behind in posts for books I read. And I have a huge list of books I want to read. I haven't started a buying embargo yet but probably will have to soon.

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  7. The funny thing is I had already seen the film many times over by the time I'd read the book last year, Tracy. Didn't like the book at all. For me, the film is infinitely superior. I didn't think much of Caspary's writing style, considered it fairly anemic.

    But of course, that's only my own and obviously in the minority opinion. :)

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    1. I did enjoy the book very much, Yvette, but I can definitely see why some readers would not. Everyone has different reactions to books. I did not get pulled into the book until it got to the 2nd section narrated by McPherson. But I also see why the movie is so loved, and I am sure I will like it even better the next time I watch it. That happens to me a lot.

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  8. I really like both film and book. It's a while since I read the book - definitely pre-blogging days - does it have much in the way of clothes in it ;)?

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    1. Hmmm, Moira, I remember thinking about clothes in Laura when I was reading the book, and wondering why there wasn't much on that subject. You might notice more than I did, and there was some clothing-related discussion, just not really great descriptions.

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  9. I'm very fond of the movie and have watched it multiple times over the years. A few years back, I plucked up the courage to read the novel, concerned that the movie might have spoiled it for me or that it'd be a disappointment for other reasons.

    Silly moi. I loved the book too. As you say, book and movie are very different in lots of ways, but both are splendid.

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    1. I think I am repeating myself here, John, but I don't know how we missed watching this movie over the years. Regardless, now I have and I will be re-watching. I always see so much more when I watch movies a 2nd and 3rd time (and more). Same for the book too, I am sure, but I will have to give that a longer rest.

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  10. A few weeks ago, I watched the film "Laura," for at least the third time. It's just a wonderful film with a great cast.

    And can one resist Gene Tierney?

    It sent me to reserve other films with her in them at the library website.

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    1. You are so right about Gene Tierney, Kathy. I was very impressed with her. I don't think I have seen her in many films. And we will definitely be watching Laura again.

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  11. I love both the book and the movie, and I think each stands alone. The movie, for me, portrays all of the characters beautifully, but it leaves out so much. The book has much more depth, and I can really feel Mark's obsession with the murdered Laura.

    The only thing I take issue with, in both book and movie, is Laura's ridiculously young age. She starts her career at 17. Seventeen! And five years later, she is a top of the line advertising executive and a very cool, sophisticated and knowledgable woman of 22. :^)

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    1. Susan, I had not even thought about Laura's age. It did not bother me but I think I was assuming she was about 5 years older. I miss details like that easily.

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    2. Sorry, yes, I came here to correct that. The 17-22 ages were in the movie only. I misremembered the book details (which I reread yesterday!) Laura came to NYC and met Waldo 8 years ago. Near the end of the book it's mentioned she's close to 30. That makes sense. And in the book, she's a valued, talented copywriter but doesn't do any hiring as she did in the movie.

      I guess it was Hollywood's obsession with youthful women that made her a talented teenager. :^)

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    3. Thanks for that clarification, Susan. I love the way the book was written, but I did tend to hurry through it to find out what happened.

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