"Laura" by Vera Caspary
Reviewed by David Marshall James
A successful New York advertising copywriter, just on the upside of thirty, is betrothed to a model-handsome fellow worker whom she discovers has been dallying with an actual model employed by their agency.
On the eve of her wedding, Laura Hunt quaffs a couple of dry martinis with her intended, Shelby Carpenter, then stands up her mentor-- syndicated columnist Waldo Lydecker-- for dinner, then hightails it to her Wilton, Connecticut, country retreat, this being August and Le Tout of NYC's haut monde have fled to cooler and/or beachier climes till the Fall Season commences.
Sounds like an episode of "Mad Men." Well, keep turning the clock back, all the way to 1941, as this is the novel from which the 1944 film of the same title was adapted.
Whether you've viewed that or not, the book offers so much more. And, a brief commentary on the casting: Gene Tierney was far too lovely for the role of Laura, as former ad copywriter Vera Caspary penned her. Hedy Lamarr turned down the part-- something of a mistake for her career-- but she of course was even more eye-catching than Tierney.
Interestingly, Lamarr is referenced in the novel as the ultimate in women with whom the detective, Mark McPherson, daydreams about taking a powder. Judy Garland would have been perfect as Caspary's "doelike" Laura-- attractive, but with little confidence in her good looks. Had but the film been made by MGM... .
As for the effete, champagne-and-caviar-tongued Waldo Lydecker, Clifton Webb proved good casting on one level, but Caspary's Lydecker is so corpulent that his face shakes like "cafeteria Jell-O." Webb, as you may recall, was rail-thin.
Caspary's "Laura" is neither a hard-boiled nor a scientifically dry murder mystery. Rather, it's a psychologically centered story of a woman's attraction to a trio of men.
Laura, late of Colorado Springs, has reinvented herself in NYC (again, along the lines of many characters in the more modern "Mad Men") to the degree that she's playing a romantic game for which she is woefully unprepared.
To wit: How does a well-to-do career woman balance work with romance, particularly when she is attracted to men (Shelby Carpenter, Det. Mark McPherson) who earn less than she and have the bruised egos to show for it?
The novel's outstanding stylistic feature is that it is related through multiple points of view, with accompanying shifts in narrators. Caspary's adoption of Lydecker's creme-de-la-creme-de-menthe manner of both conversation and exposition is nothing short of a tour de force.
In moving from the perspectives of Lydecker to McPherson to Laura in different parts of the novel, Caspary brilliantly underscores the psychological contrasts of her characters in a manner in which a single narrator, however omniscient, could not.
This new edition of "Laura" is a selection from the "Femmes Fatales" series published by the Feminist Press of the City University of New York.
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