Laura is an elegant novel about outwardly elegant people—a book, in Julian Symons’s words, “of unusual wit and style,” and one of its pleasures is providing an opportunity to vicariously experience in rich detail an upscale 1940s Manhattan of supper clubs, cocktail parties, concert halls, and antique shops, even as that bubble world is turned inside out by a brutal murder. The book’s central figure—an independent woman much like Vera Caspary herself—is seen from different angles by men with varying designs on her before she finally is permitted to speak in her own disarmingly straightforward voice. Otto Preminger’s celebrated film version, and the familiar song derived from David Raksin’s haunting theme music, have given Laura an enduring cultural presence, yet Caspary’s novel remains underappreciated for its singularly nuanced use of the mystery form as a medium for social and psychological portraiture.

Sara Paretsky on Vera Caspary’s Laura

Sara Paretsky.

Sara Paretsky

The life and desires of Laura Hunt are a reflection of those of her creator Vera Caspary. Like her heroine, Caspary carved a major professional life for herself at a time when it was both rare and hard for women to occupy that space. Coming of age at the end of the First World War, she moved to New York in 1925 and lived a Gatsby kind of life of wild parties (she was thrown into a china closet during one of them) and lovers. At the same time, she worked hard, built a career, and believed, at the end of her long life, that she had done what women are so often told they can’t: had a highly successful career and a fulfilling private life.1

Caspary apparently used Wilkie Collins as a model when she wrote Laura, so much so that she outlined The Woman in White to get to the bones of Collins’s structure. She adopted his narrative technique of alternating and multiple voices and modeled her villain on one of Collins’s, but the novel is entirely her own. Caspary used many conventions of the femme fatale—Laura is beautiful, she rouses erotic feelings in the men who meet her. Laura is indeed a novel about desire and appetite, but the desire is only tangentially sexual. Laura Hunt desires, as Caspary did, life lived on a large canvas: a career at the level of a man’s, a satisfying love life—including a good sex life—friendships, good food, good drink, theatre, art.

It’s the aesthete and journalist Waldo Lydecker, one of the three narrative voices in the novel, whose appetites spill over from desire into gluttony. Many contemporary crime writers add meals to their novels for background or filler, but the meals in Laura serve a deliberate narrative purpose. The dinner that Mark McPherson, the detective investigating Laura’s murder, eats with Waldo at the Golden Lizard shows Waldo as a figure in a Cruikshank or Daumier etching, gross and obsessed. Their conversation is repeatedly interrupted because Waldo must arrange seven or eight rich dishes and sauces just so. He consumes them all and then has seconds. In contrast, McPherson, whom Laura’s housekeeper describes as “a man,” doesn’t care much about the food. Laura herself eats abstemiously—a single poached egg for breakfast is the only meal we actually see her consume.

At the novel’s beginning, when we all—readers and narrators alike—are focused on Laura Hunt’s violent death, we are led to see her as Waldo Lydecker’s creation: he’s taken her to the theater, the ballet, the art galleries. He can’t bear for her to care more for other men than for him and feels betrayed by her decision to marry. Ultimately, Caspary makes clear that Laura is no Coppelia, no doll brought to life by Waldo as puppet master. Her painted portrait, which exercises such great fascination over McPherson that he purchases it, is of a woman in control. She wears business clothes, she’s holding gloves, ready to be in motion. Caspary fought with director Otto Preminger over the way he depicted Laura’s sexuality in his 1944 film version. Caspary’s rage, as she herself called it, remained so intense that decades after the film’s release, she attacked Preminger (verbally) when she found herself seated near him at a restaurant. (As a woman born half a century after Caspary, I admire and even envy the strength of her vision and her voice. When Disney butchered my own character, detective VI Warshawski in the 1991 movie of that title, using vulgar sex jokes and having my strong feminist detective perform a striptease in a taxi—I was angry but impotent—I never raged against the director or the producer.)

Vera Caspary wrote at the end of her life that in some ways she wished she’d been born a half century later, when the women’s movement had opened so many more doors for women, but she had lived “a grand adventure”—which might not have been possible in the 1970s.

1 Details of Caspary’s life are taken from A. B. Emrys’s 2005 essay, “All My Lives: Vera Caspary’s Life, Times and Fiction.”

Sara Paretsky is the author most recently of Brush Back, the seventeenth novel in her acclaimed series about Chicago PI VI Warshawski. Paretsky and Warshawski transformed the role of women in contemporary crime fiction. Sisters in Crime, the advocacy organization she founded in 1986, has helped a new generation of crime writers and fighters to thrive. Paretsky has received the Cartier Diamond Dagger, MWA’s Grand Master, and Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year.

Listen to recordings of the jazz standard “Laura” based on the 1944 film


Trailer for Laura (1944, directed by Otto Preminger)

Starring Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, and Dana Andrews