My mind was foggy. I was going somewhere, but I’d lost the road. I remember asking myself about clues. What were clues, what had I looked for in other cases? A smile couldn’t be brought into court as evidence. You couldn’t arrest a man because he trembled. Brown eyes had stolen a peep at gray eyes, so what? The tone of a voice was something that died with a word.
Earlier this year, I read Vera Caspary’s novel Bedelia and then watched the British noir film version. I became interested in Caspary and admired the manner in which she adapted Bedelia for the screen, so it was just a matter of time before I turned to the more famous Laura–a book made into and then overshadowed by the noir film. Laura, the 1944 film from director Otto Preminger, is one of the first noirs I ever saw. Not that I knew what noir was at the time, but as I watched Laura, I realised that I was watching a film that was stylistically far removed from anything else I’d ever seen. Laura often makes top-ten film noir lists. It isn’t one of my top noirs, but it’s certainly a memorable, stylish film.
Once you’ve seen a film version of a book, and what’s more you’ve seen it several times, it’s impossible to completely eradicate the film images from your brain. As I read the book, I found myself comparing the lovely Gene Tierney with the fictional Laura, and of course comparing dapper, bitchy Clifton Webb with Caspary’s completely different vision of Lydecker. In the novel, Lydecker is a large man, portly, we can say, or fat if we’re feeling mean-spirited.
Anyway here’s the plot:
New York police detective Mark McPherson is assigned to a murder case. The victim is Laura Hunt, an extremely successful and well-paid advertising executive. From the clues at the crime scene, it seems that late Friday night, she answered the doorbell in a negligee and was shot in the face at point-blank range. Ok, so there’s a dead dame–a beautiful corpse on the slab at the morgue, but apart from the fact there’s a nameless killer running around, there are also a few unanswered questions about Laura. On the night of the murder, Laura was supposed to dine with her long-term friend Lydecker, and then she planned to leave town and travel to her country home, returning Wednesday for her marriage to Shelby. Why did she cancel dinner with Lydecker? Why didn’t she tell Shelby? Why was she still in town? And why are there two dirty glasses discarded in her bedroom?
As McPherson digs around the case, it’s clear that the people who loved Laura–her fiancé Shelby, her friend and confidante, Lydecker and her neurotic aunt, Susan Treadwell aren’t telling the truth. What are they hiding?
Caspary switches narrators and creates a three-part novel. One section is narrated by Lydecker, another by McPherson, and you can read the book to discover the third. For those who’ve seen the film, you know where the plot goes, but it’s well-worth reading the book to note the differences in characterisation. The book includes an extensive foreword: Women Write Pulp which is not specific to Caspary but rather it’s a broad overview of the role of women writers in pulp and crime fiction. The afterword is a synopsis of Caspary’s career with an emphasis on Laura–Caspary’s “turning point” novel. Caspary was, apparently, not happy with the film portrayals of either Laura or Lydecker.
One of the biggest distinctions between the book and the film is found in the character of Waldo Lydecker. Caspary states that she based him on a character in a Wilkie Collins novel–The Lady in White’s Count Fosco (played nastily by the hefty Sydney Greenstreet in the 1948 film version). Here, in the Otto Preminger 1944 film, Lydecker is an effete, effeminate, fussy product of New York society, and there are some differences, too, in Laura’s character. But the differences aside, Laura is still a capital mystery, and we still have lonely detective McPherson falling in love with a dead woman.
Caspary allows us to get the measure of the main characters in just a few sentences. Here’s Laura’s aunt, Susan Treadwell–a woman who drips honey but spits acid:
In the mirror’s gilt frame Mark saw the reflection of an advancing figure. She was small, robed in deepest mourning and carrying under her right arm a Pomeranian whose auburn coat matched her own. As she paused in the door with the marble statues and bronze figurines behind her, the gold frame giving margins to the portrait, she was like a picture done by one of Sargent’s imitators who had failed to carry over to the twentieth century the dignity of the nineteenth. Mark had seen her briefly at the inquest and had thought her young to be Laura’s aunt. Now he saw that she was well over fifty. The rigid perfection of her face was almost artificial, as if flesh-pink velvet were drawn over an iron frame.
McPherson is under pressure to solve the case, but his approach to the crime includes more than a degree of fascination with Laura. He takes an instant dislike to Laura’s fiancé, Shelby, a man whose southern charm grates on McPherson’s innate view of male-female relationships. McPherson seeks out Lydecker–after all he seems to know Laura better than anyone else, and Lydecker also served as Laura’s unlikely confidant. McPherson becomes obsessed with Laura. This starts as a normal part of the investigation as McPherson pieces together a portrait of the victim. He begins by wondering what sorts of books she read, but then moves on to more intimate information:
Last night, alone in the apartment, he had made unscientific investigation of Laura’s closets, chests of drawers, dressing-table, and bathroom. He knew Laura, not only with his intelligence, but with his senses. His fingers touched fabrics that had known her body, his ears had heard the rustle of her silks, his nostrils sniffed at the varied, heady fragrances of her perfumes.
Caspary takes her characters: shallow Shelby, quirky Lydecker and Laura’s vain aunt and places them around the borders of the crime. Under McPherson’s scrutiny, they all hover around the life of the dead Laura–minor sycophants still bound in the orbit of a beautiful and strangely unfathomable woman. In spite of the fact she’s gone, her presence lingers in her home which is dominated by a large portrait painting of Laura. Just as McPherson begins to understand Laura and regret the loss of a woman he never knew, we too begin to regret the absence of Laura’s vibrant personality. Here’s Lydecker:
For me the room still shone with Laura’s lustre. Perhaps it was in the crowding memories of firelit conversations, of laughing dinners at the candle-bright refectory table, of midnight confidences fattened by spicy snacks and endless cups of steaming coffee.
It’s all too easy to underestimate Laura’s aunt, Mrs Treadwell. While she’s mired in the depths of mourning, she’s ready to assess her dead niece’s wealth and squabble with anyone who imagines they’re entitled to a slice of Laura’s estate. As with all the characters in the novel, there’s more to Mrs Treadwell than it first seems. She’s vain and has spent a lifetime seeking the attention of men. At the same time, however, there isn’t much she misses, but her self-centered, dramatically-inclined character makes her easy to underestimate. Here’s Aunt Susan dropping clues and bits of tasty gossip to McPherson without appearing to have any idea about what’s she’s saying. She’s a study in feminine guile masquerading as foolishness:
You don’t like Shelby very much, do you, Mrs Treadwell?
“He’s a darling boy,” she said, “but not for Laura. Laura couldn’t afford him.”
“Oh” I said.
She was afraid I’d got the wrong impression and added quickly: “Not that he’s a gigolo. Shelby comes from a wonderful family. But in some ways a gigolo’s cheaper. You know where you are. With a man like Shelby you can’t slip the money under the table.”
After reading the novel, I can see why Caspary was annoyed by Preminger’s portrayal of Laura. Caspary’s original fictional Laura can be seen in contrast to Aunt Susan. Aunt Susan, like Bedelia is another manipulative demanding woman who gets what she wants by projecting feminine submission to the men in her life. Aunt Susan and Bedelia appear to play by the rules in order to subvert the male structures that hold them, tenuously, in place. Laura is different. She’s a career woman who’s opted out of the marriage & children paradigm, but her loving, generous nature traps her in a relationship with a man who is ultimately not worth the price.