on 3 February 2009
How is it that this wonderful psycho-drama-crime-thriller has faded into time, relegated to strictly cult status, while glossy, empty dross fills the bookshelves today? - the stuff produced for women is by far the worst. You know the stuff I mean - a cartoony woman dashes across the cover, shoes, handbags and babies flying around her. It's all terribly predictable and middle class and the writing has no more depth or value than the latest edition of "Hello" magazine. I think crime fans and women alike will find this refreshing. It made me think of Minette Walters' excellent "The Ice House" for the intensity of the characterisations, and for the way crime and romance are darkly threaded together.
The excellent 1944 film "Laura" by Otto Preminger is certainly a different thing from Vera Caspary's book, from which the film was adapted. I don't know about you, but I had had no i0dea - such is the way that history tends to write women out of the picture - that women writers were integral to every sub-genre of pulp fiction from the 30s to the 50s. Of course, Patrick Hamilton, a British writer working in the 30s and 40s, was equally popular with his contemporaries, and became equally forgotten - until now. Perhaps Caspary will eventually get her due, thanks to the heroic re-printers of lost fiction.
*some spoilers from here* It's really hard to describe the story without giving away important details. Laura Hunt is a successful advertising exec who lives in New York's posh Upper East Side; she is surrounded by admirers but has preferred to stay single, till now. Shocking news of her shooting starts the book off, and the story is concerned with the views and actions of her friends - particularly her catty friend Waldo Lydecker, art historian and man of letters, her fiancé, louche playboy Shelby Carpenter, and her rich aunt Mrs Treadwell - and the efforts by detective Mark McPherson to solve the crime. "Laura" has shades of melodrama and lurid psychodrama - but also, great sketches of wit, humour and really intelligent psychological insight. Caspary draws Laura's world with great economy; her characters are excellently developed; her prose clever, accomplished and smooth (though perhaps not quite so distinctive and iconic as Hammett's or Chandler's). The police work leaves much to be desired - but then Caspary wasn't interested in procedure. Throughout the various sections of this book the authorial voice switches expertly from that of Wildean Waldo, to terse, taut McPherson, to the eponymous Laura herself - each person is a flesh-and-blood, fallible, judgemental human. I've re-read the book several times and knowing `how it ends' doesn't lessen the enjoyment one whit - I hang on every word, enjoying the way her characters express themselves. It's addictive stuff, which is why it helped make such a compelling film.
Laura's is the most complex character: strong, independent, struggling for her right voice and a sense of herself in a world of men. She may have as many clothes and shoes and handbags as those modern-day chick-lit women, but she isn't defined by these things; they merely add another dimension to a self already rich in interest and occupation. Unlike in the film, Laura is something more complicated than merely beautiful. She's intelligent and subtle, and, as Lydecker tells McPherson, she has a way of listening which makes a man feel like he's the only man in the world. But she lives for herself, too, in a way which I think the 1950s tried to force out of women's lives: she works for herself, to pay for a rich enjoyment of life, and any success belongs absolutely to her.
McPherson was already reaching - up out of his poverty-stricken past, his cop-past, his grim assumptions about `dames' and `dolls' - and in finding Laura - first existing only as a dead memory - he finds the thing he has been reaching for all this time. Their mutual isolation - he as hunter, and she as, in some way, hunted, in a world which distrusts them both - makes them dear to each other, right in the midst of the suspicion under which she labours in all their eyes. This is how I like my love stories - a little murky or dark, a little a bit off - not "hundred per cent" as Lydecker says. The plot twists and twists again, and spirals to a melodramatic finale. Who knows if Laura and Mark glide off into a perfect future together? - I suspect not. His lifetime's conditioning about women will kick in, and she'll kick back. But they'll have a chance - and that's as good as it gets in a world where you can't control the motivations of the people around you.
If you're tired of reading about women's shoes and handbags, or if the latest crime publication seems a bit empty and formulaic, it's time you rediscovered this.