Saturday, April 23, 2022

Laura by Vera Caspary

"The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer weekend had been crushed spiritless by humidity. ... Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing ... I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura’s epitaph. My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality" - Laura by Vera Caspary

Many years ago I read a review of Dorothy Hughes' classic noir crime novel In A Lonely Place (1947) and I realized that along with Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Chester Himes etc, women also wrote noir fiction in the mid-twentieth century.  I ended up reading In A Lonely Place and loved it and so for this year's Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic mystery or crime novel, I wanted to try another bestselling 1940's noir novel and so I went with Laura by Vera Caspary (1943).  

Laura is set in NYC during the 1940's and when the novel begins we learn that the title character in the novel, Laura Hunt, has been murdered.  Laura was alone in her apartment on a Friday night when the door bell rang.  Laura went to answer it and the killer in gruesome fashion shot her in the face.  The housekeeper Bessie found Laura's body the next morning when she arrived for work.

Mark McPherson an experienced NYPD Homicide Detective is assigned to the murder case but who was Laura Hunt and who would want to kill her?   Laura we discover was a beautiful, elegant, young woman who lived by herself in an expensive Manhatten apartment and had a country house in Connecticut.  What's interesting for the time period of the 1940's is that Laura could afford this all by herself.  She was a modern woman with a successful career in advertising fifteen years before Mad Men.  Laura was also a kind person, generous to friends and coworkers. Could that generosity have led to her death?

Detective McPherson quickly zeroes in on two suspects, Laura's fiance Shelby Campbell and Laura's friend and mentor the high society newspaper columnist, Waldo Lydecker.  Both men claim to have loved Laura but in the novel we are shown that neither man had her best interests at heart.  

Shelby for example is handsome and charming but he's a gigolo.  Walter is very controlling and has tried to subtley sabatoge every romantic relationship Laura has been involved in, claiming that this or that man is simply not good enough.  Detective Mark McPherson is becoming obsessed with Laura as well.  But then, a quarter of the way through the novel, there is a dramatic turn of events which anyone who has seen the film will understand and Detective McPherson now finds himself working a very different case.  I'll leave it there.  

I enjoyed Laura I was interested right through to the last page and that's what you want in a mystery.  The author Vera Caspary led an interesting life as well.  She was born in 1899 and died in 1987 and she once joked that she was accidentally born in the 19th century.  That's true.  Vera Caspary was very much a 20th century woman, maybe even a late 20th century woman, years ahead of her time.  Throughout most of her life she was single and self-supporting, working first in advertising, like Laura, and then as a successful novelist,  Vera Caspary married when she was fifty and it was a very happy marriage. She published eighteen novels during her life in different genres but one consistent theme seems to have been "the working woman and her right to lead her own life, to be independent"  I recommend giving Laura a read...

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff

Just finished Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff published 1982.  It's the first book in The Oxford History of the United States and it covers American History from 1763 - 1789. It's about 800 pages and the American Revolution must have taken up 500 pages or it certainly felt like that.  The author wanting to be accurate and miss nothing let's us know about every aspect of the war in minute detail.  The end result is that I retained very little except that George Washington was a great general but I knew that going in.  It took me on and off about a year to finish this book and I can't even be sure I read every part of it because I read it in an audio version and at certain points I dozed off while the book kept rolling on.  

I don't fault the author (well, maybe a little) but he did do a tremendous job of research and the book is well written.  It's just that sometimes less is more.  If you go into too much detail regarding a historical period the reader is not going to remember the important events you want to stress.  It will all be a blur.  As to why I have embarked on this American history project it's partly because I don't know that much about American history.  Whatever I may have learned in school I have forgotten and I have come to realize a large part of our country's history I was never taught at all. 

One thing I did get from Glorious Cause is that from America's founding there has been a distrust by the states for the federal government.  The constitution was ratified in 1788 but it almost didn't happen because states wanted their independence and feared a federal government that would be too strong.  You definitely see that playing out today as well.  As for me, I am with Hamilton and Madison.  States going off on their own has not worked out well in our history.