An Autumn Walk, Political Signs, & Vera Caspary’s “Laura” in “Women Crime Writers”

An autumn garden.

An autumn garden in the Midwest.

I dread the autumn, but there is no need to this year.  The light is enchanting. It is 80 degrees.  I feel like a character in a New England novel (preferably Jo in Little Women, who carries apples in her pocket and says, “Christopher Columbus!”). The leaves are a bit dry but a few flowers still bloom.

As W. S. Merwin says in “To the Light of September”:

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer

Nothing happening in the ‘hood today, but political signs are starting to appear in yards.

I SAW ONE HILLARY SIGN.  Hillary is strong, articulate, and even over-qualified, with a distinguished record as New York Senator and Secretary of State.  But will a woman ever be elected president in the U.S.?  The Republicans and the media are going after her, as usual:  if not about her email, it would be something else.   My mother, a political science major, was disappointed she didn’t live to see a woman in the White House. Will it be Hillary’s year?

The Hillary house.

I SAW TWO BERNIE SIGNS.  The popular Bernie Sanders, who got 72% of the vote for U.S. senator in Vermont in 2012, is catching up with Hillary in the polls. I can support him, but this ain’t Vermont:  can a socialist really compete with Hillary?


And now I’ll tell you what I’ve been reading (because that’s much more interesting).

Women Crime Writers Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s 51KoYBh1+5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was utterly engrossed by Vera Caspary’s Laura, a brilliant 1944 crime classic reissued in Women Crime Writers:  Four Suspense Novels of the 1940 (Library of America). This stunning mystery has so many angles: it’s like being in a hall of mirrors.  Laura was also made into a popular Otto Preminger film with Gene Tierney in 1944.

Laura is more than a tough crime classic.  It is also a psychological novel.  Who would want to kill popular Laura, a successful advertising executive about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a refined Southern copywriter?  Everybody loved Laura.  But then her maid finds her corpse  in her apartment:  the weapon was a sawed-off shotgun.

Told from three different points of view (it is actually more complicated), it traces the investigation of her murder.  It opens with the bitter narrative of her friend, Waldo Lydecker (Lie-decker?), an obese, pompous newspaper columnist who thinks no one is good enough for Laura.  He is irritated by the interrogation of the smart, masculine detective, Mark McPherson, whom he describes cynically as “a veritable Cassius who emphasized the lean and hungry look by clothing himself darkly in blue, double-breasted worsted, unadorned white shirt and dull tie.”  Waldo, who has written columns about crime, has one thing in common with Mark:  they both hate mystery fiction.  His voice is amusing as well as venomous.

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in the timid horde known as the reading public.  The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson….  I offer the narrative, not so much as a detective story but as a love story.

vera caspary laura_dellWhy is it a love story?  Waldo observes that the tough detective Mark is falling in love with Laura through  interviews with friends and suspects and the lovely objects and books in her apartment.   And Mark confirms it in his narrative. He began reading classics after he was shot and spent a long spell in the hospital.  He envies Laura her education, and wishes he had known her.   His working-class observations are sharper than those of Laura’s well-educated friends and relatives, because he is an outsider.

I can’t tell you who the third narrator is.  You will be shocked.

Another theme in Caspary’s novel is the difficulty of career women finding suitable men. And so I must share with you Laura’s maid Bessie’s view of Mark.

“A man,” Bessie said.  “Most of them that comes here are big babies or old women.  For once, even if he’s a dick, you’ve met a man.” And then, completely in the groove of man-worship, added, “Guess I’ll make a chocolate cake.”

Sarah Weinman,  editor of two Library of America volumes of Women Crime Writers, Sarah Weinman writes at the LOA blog about women’s “domestic suspense stories.”

 Domestic suspense is the mirror image of romance fiction; where romance is about conflict resolving into a happy ending, domestic suspense is about a happy beginning (of marriage, children, or independence) splintering into chaos. With the post-war economy on the upswing and new technology, like inexpensive cars and kitchen appliances, freshly available to couples and families, it seemed a simple thing to slip back into traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood, even if those roles were outmoded. Novels of domestic suspense took the fantasy of suburban living and uncovered the bile and dreck subsisting underneath, a clever subversion that also doubled as a mirror to sublimated terror.

I loved Laura, and can’t wait to read the other three in this  volume:  Helen Eustin’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.