The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water 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. My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world. Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction. In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.
The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary’s Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages. It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura’s apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced. Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower. In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.
Caspary’s use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura’s complexities, but the other characters’ biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion. This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself. This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura’s former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.
At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura. Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out. In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development. But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character. The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.
Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu. Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests. She is in many ways a truly “modern” woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not “masculine.” Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance. Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura’s character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own. Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them. She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.
There are few structural weaknesses. The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering. Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo’s more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable. Laura may not be the “perfect” crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.