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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Vera Caspary

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To purchase Laura

Title: Laura
Author: Vera Caspary
Genre: Novel
Written: 1943
Length: 171 pages
Availability: Laura - US
in: Women Crime Writers - US
Laura - UK
Laura - Canada
Laura - India
in: Etranges vérités - France
Laura - Deutschland
Laura - Italia
Laura - España
DVD: Laura - US
Laura - UK
  • First published serially, as Ring Twice for Laura, in Colliers in 1942, and as a book in 1943
  • Filmed as Laura in 1944, directed by Otto Preminger, and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Vincent Price

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Our Assessment:

B : great twist; some fine storytelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/11/2015 Val McDermid
The Spectator . 13/4/1944 Kate O'Brien
TLS . 6/5/1944 M.Willson Disher
The Washington Post . 24/7/2006 Patrick Anderson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Itís a riveting collision between the elegant and sophisticated world of New York journalism and the pressure cooker of homicide investigation, complete with a heroine who goes beyond the conventions of the femme fatale to take charge of her own life." - Val McDermid, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Laura, by Miss Vera Caspary, is a psycho-thriller, the wrapper tells me. Well, dropping the "psycho"-bit, it is quite a thriller in its way; though I say it uncertainly, being no judge of these who-dun-it affairs, and always prone to drop behind the field before we are half-way home. Still, I imagine that people who like murders will like this one; I shall like it better when I see it on the screen, where such situations are so very much better served." - Kate O'Brien, The Spectator

  • "(S)hould maintain sympathetic feelings in any normally susceptible breast, and the plot is managed most adroitly." - M.Willson Disher, Times Literary Supplement

  • "I found it sometimes brilliant, sometimes a mess and mostly of interest as the first draft of Preminger's Oscar-nominated movie. (...) The first third of the novel, with Lydecker narrating, is hypnotic, but problems arise when Laura's voice takes over. A central contradiction in the story is how so smart a woman could get herself embroiled with creeps like Lydecker and Carpenter" - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Laura is presented in five parts, and begins with prominent columnist Waldo Lydecker presenting the story -- "not so much as a detective yarn but as a love story":. The detective called in to take on the case -- not the kind he usually handles -- is Mark McPherson, and Lydecker defers to his central role:

For all his rough edges, he was the man I should have been, the hero of the story.
     The hero, but not the interpreter. That is my omniscient role. As narrator and interpreter, I shall describe scenes which I never saw and record dialogues which I did not hear. For this impudence I offer no excuse. I am an artist, and it is my business to recreate movement precisely as I create mood. I know these people, their voices ring in my ears, and I need only close my eyes and see characteristic gestures. My written dialogue will have more clarity, compactness, and essence of character than their spoken lines, for I am able to edit while I write, whereas they carried on their conversations in a loose and pointless fashion with no sense of form or crisis in the building of their scenes.
       It's an interesting approach to presenting a murder-investigation tale, and the flair Caspary endows Lydecker with as he tackles the story in this manner makes for a solid start. But it only gets her so far, and, a bit over a third of the way in, she abandons him, the one who takes over the telling-duties next -- McPherson -- explaining that the turn of events in the investigation were such a shock to Lydecker that: "The prose style was knocked right out of him". Which is a nice way of putting it, but also turns out to be as deflating for the novel as a whole as it is for Lydecker.
       The detective continues the story -- but not through to the end: a short third part consists entirely of a verbatim stenographic record of a statement to the police by a man who was with the victim right before she died -- more or less simply questions and answers, without any embellishment beyond the speakers' words. A fourth part is yet another first-person account, by yet another of the players in this story, before McPherson takes the reins again in concluding the account.
       This shifting of perspectives and voices suggests Caspary was unsure quite how to present it. Having first-person narrator Lydecker also take the liberties of omniscient narration -- describing scenes he wasn't present for, but which he is told about -- would seem to be sufficient to tell most any tale, but Caspary pulls back from it. While that may, ultimately, be necessary, she certainly does so earlier than need be -- and the novel struggles a bit to regain its footing after that, wobbling some as it shifts to the voices that follow.
       The victim was shot when she answered the door of her apartment, her body identified by her maid and her aunt -- Laura Hunt, a successful young professional working in advertising, and engaged to be married, the following week, to (much less successful) co-worker Shelby Carpenter. Laura was also a longtime friend of Lydecker's -- and was supposed to dine with him on the evening of the murder.
       Odds and ends make for different suspicions, and the facts don't seem to neatly add up. Shelby already was the beneficiary of her tidy life insurance, for example. And there's another woman, too, Diane Redfern .....
       In trying to learn about Laura and her circles, McPherson relies a lot on Lydecker, and they have good fun playing their parts -- the cultured, refined prig and the rough-at-the-edges cop (who is, of course, more cultured and observant than he wants to let on). So, for example, when Lydecker suggests an after-dinner Courvoisier, McPherson responds: "You order. I can't pronounce it."
       One thing McPherson learns is that Laura was quite the woman. He's taken by the portrait of her, and everything else he learns. As are the other men in her life -- even with Lydecker, her: "charms had roused passion in this curiously unimpassioned creature".
       The novel has a big twist, revealed with theatrical flourish -- the last sentences of Lydecker's part of the account warn: "Thunder crashed above us. The storm was coming closer", and indeed, what a storm it then is. It does shift the investigation some -- notably, by offering another suspect -- and puts additional pressures on McPherson, as the case does become front-page tabloid fodder, making for greater urgency. Things do heat up, and there's a decently done build-up to the rush of the resolution.
       The story is clever, and Laura a creatively presented femme fatale (of sorts). It's a bit hard to understand why the successful career woman wastes her time with the likes of Lydecker or Carpenter -- but then that does allow McPherson to emerge as the so-obviously-right partner for her.
       Caspary does write well, and captures some of these characters and scenes nicely, but what seems like a lack of confidence shows through repeatedly. Caspary seems almost overwhelmed by the potential of her inspired story. It's noteworthy how often parts of the story are compared to dubious fiction: "It's like a bad novel", one character observes; "It was unreal; it was a scene from a Victorian novel", another writes. It comes as no surprise that even Laura had once tried her hand at novel-writing, when she was twenty -- and that: "The novel was bad; I never finished it".
       All in all -- plot and writing --, it makes for an intriguing work, but one that falls short of the greatness that seems within reach. It doesn't help that it's overshadowed by the film version, which no doubt manages the twist more effectively (and surely does away with some of the narrative-babble confusion).
       Laura is certainly good enough -- and there's enough to it to make for an interesting read. The characters are quite well-drawn -- if dangerously close to cartoonish on occasion -- and it's particularly welcome to see a woman who has had so much independent success in such a central (if, here, vulnerable) role. The attempts at romance -- specifically (but not solely) of McPherson falling so easily for the (image of this) woman -- feel rather over-heated and less convincing, and Caspary perhaps tries to push that angle a bit too hard, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2018

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Laura: Reviews: Laura - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Vera Caspary lived 1899 to 1987.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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