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A Look at Vera Caspary's 'Laura' (1943)

Vera Caspary wrote thrillers -- but not like any other author of her time, male or female. Her specialty was a specific type that she pioneered -- the psycho thriller.
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Before it was a movie... it was a powerful noir novel written by Vera Louise Caspary (1899-1987) who became one of the most prominent female authors and playwrights of her generation, writing more than 21 novels. Several of her books were turned into movies, including Bedelia. Caspary also wrote plays and movies. Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's A Letter to Three Wives were both based on her screen stories. The Washington Post called Caspary's life "a Baedeker of the 20th century. An independent woman in an unliberated era, she collided with or was touched by many of its major historical and cultural events: wars, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War... Hollywood in its romantic heyday. Hollywood in the grip of McCarthyism, the footloose life of the artistic rich, publishing, Broadway." Laura, her best-known work, was adapted into a popular film in 1944, directed by Otto Preminger with Gene Tierney in the title role and Dana Andrews playing the detective.

Vera Caspary wrote thrillers -- but not like any other author of her time, male or female. Her specialty was a specific type that she pioneered -- the psycho thriller. Typically, thrillers focus on plot development as opposed to character development. They focus on an action arc as opposed to a psychological arc. But a successful psychological thriller does both more or less equally. The suspense comes from the human interaction between characters who prey on each other's thoughts, trying either to confuse, destroy, or deceive.

Laura is a superb example of a perfect melding of all those elements. This haunting novel written in 1941 (its working title was Ring Twice for Laura) and published in 1943 is about a dead woman -- or so we think when we start to read it. Laura Hunt started as a daring and ambitious secretary at an advertising agency and worked her way up to become a top executive (Caspary had a similar background). Laura's inability to balance her professional and private lives results in her murder.

If a mystery is a who-dunit, this thriller is a how-dunit. And Laura satisfies both definitions. Who killed her is certainly a mystery that needs to be solved (a jealous suitor). But there's also the mystery of who in fact was killed. As soon as the supposed murdered woman shows up unharmed and very much alive, we're not only startled -- we're reading non-stop suspense. (Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo, based on the Boileau/Narcejac novel D'Entre Les Morts, seems strongly influenced by Caspary's device, as does the Brian De Palma 1976 film Obsession.)

At its heart, the novel is about a woman and the men in love with her. Each is a narrator in the novel: there's the 50-year-old man of letters; her fiancé, who is a Kentucky gallant; and the detective investigating her violent death. And when Laura reappears and it turns out that another woman, Diane, was murdered (a shotgun blast obliterated her face, preventing her from being identified), Laura herself becomes a narrator and a suspect.

This groundbreaking suspense novel thrills in the way it playfully toys with the reader's expectations and emotions. It's about obsession, and as such it mesmerizes the reader, just as Detective McPherson is mesmerized by Laura's portrait hanging over her fireplace and the mental image he puts together about her while he spends days, in her apartment studying her journals and fantasizing about her thoughts. (Again, Vertigo comes to mind.)

Reading this novel today, we forget how many advances Caspary brought to the genre. First, her feminist themes were far ahead of her time. Second, she delivered a stylistic tour de force. Like Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, Caspary's novel utilizes five different narrators who each move the story forward. Part one is told by journalist and critic Waldo Lydecker, Laura's benefactor and companion. Second, we hear from Detective Mark McPherson, who investigaties Laura's murder. Third is Laura herself, the presumed murder victim. The fourth part is a police transcript, and the fifth and final part returns us to Detective McPherson.

Laura is an astonishing blend of a murder investigation and a woman's quest for love and success. Caspary once said, "I'm not nearly as interested in writing about crime as I am in the actions of normal people under high tension." As the New York Times noted in her obituary, her principal theme is "the working woman and her right to lead her own life, to be independent." That emphasis on character is, for me, is what makes Laura one of the must-read thrillers.

You can feel the tension on every page, starting with the book's evocative opening:

The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer weekend had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many sodawater glasses have been washed. Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing. The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow. Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura's epitaph.

And you feel the suspense in every scene:

The doorbell is ringing. Perhaps he has come back to arrest me. He will find me like a slut in a pink slip with a pink strap falling over my shoulder, my hair unfastened. Like a doll, like a dame, a woman to be used by a man and thrown aside.

The bell is still ringing. It's very late. The street has grown quiet. It must have been like this the night Diane opened the door for the murderer.

(This first appeared in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads: edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner)

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