by Vera Caspary

“But I warn you, McPherson, the activities of crooks and racketeers will seem simple in comparison with the motives of a modern woman.”

A girl has been murdered in her upper-class apartment, and a murder investigation is beneath the qualifications of the lieutenant assigned to the case. But he does his duty and begins his investigation, uncovering secrets and lies of the girl’s friends and acquaintances. He’s soon to discover the murder isn’t what it seems, and as his investigation deepens he begins to know the girl, to respect her, and by degrees, to love her. But the truth is a lot more complicated than it first looks.

A stark contrast exists between the main parts of the story, parts 1, 2 and 3. The first is narrated by the pompous, highly educated, upper-crust Waldo Lydecker, the second by the slowly softening McPherson in charge of the investigation, and the third by one of the women deeply involved. Many authors use different narrators, but the command which Vera Caspary employs over each voice lends not only authenticity, but power. And since this isn’t a story about power, those contrasts draw the reader’s attention and soften our own hearts.

Consider quotes from the three sections:

  1. Reared in a world that honors only hundred per cents, he has learned in maturity what I knew as a miserable, obese adolescent, that the lame, the halt, and the blind have more malice in their souls, therefore more acumen.
  2. “When everyone says the same thing and it’s the easiest answer, you now damn well it’s baloney.”
  3. “It’s when you have friends that you can afford to be lonely. When you know a lot of people, loneliness becomes a luxury. It’s only when you’re faced to be lonely that it’s bad.”

There’s a sadness to the story, both before Detective McPherson first discovers Laura’s murder isn’t what everyone thinks and after, but it’s the after that really strikes the right nerve. He’s fallen in love with a dead woman, getting to know her intimately over the course of his investigation and learning some of the in’s and out’s of her personality that force her into those forbidden parts of his hidden conscious. He’s forgotten much of his humanity, but he begins to remember. The magnificent strength of author has us remembering, too. You are defied not to attach yourself, at least somewhat, to the beauty, complexity and strength in the character of Laura. (Take my word for it, or read the book, disagree, then come back and call me a liar.)

This book was the source for one of the greatest of all the films noir. And it’s got the darkness in it, no doubt, considering behavior of some of the players. But the book’s got a lot of hope in it, significantly more than you’re led to believe not just from the movie but the movie’s peers. And what a beautifully written, powerful last paragraph—the musing of a murderer.

Vera Caspary’s Laura is top-notch for its mystery, it’s colorful characters, the rich, even chastely sensual, superbly competent writing from the viewpoints of multiple, dissimilar characters, and for its themes of justice, love and loss.

“And what about her? Wherever you turn, a contradiction.”
“It’s the contradiction that makes her seem alive to you. Life itself is contradictory. Only death is consistent.”

4+ stars


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