A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

VERA CASPARY – Laura. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1944. Reprinted many times, including: Bestseller Mystery #B74, paperback, no date stated. Popular Library #284, paperback, 1950. Dell D188, paperback, Great Mystery Library #3, 1957. Avon, paperback, 1970. The Feminist Press at CUNY, softcover, 2005. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1944. TV adaption: Season 1, episode 2 of The 20th Century-Fox Hour, as “A Portrait of Murder,” 19 October 1955. TV movie: ABC, 24 January 1968 (co-screenwriter: Truman Capote). [See also the comments.]

   The main strength of Vera Caspary’s writing is her depth of characterization; in fact, in many of her mysteries the actual crime takes a back seat to her detailed studies of the persons involved. In this, her first novel, the persona of Laura Hunt, the heroine- initially thought to have been the victim of a brutal murder is so well described that the reader can visualize her and anticipate her actions and reactions long before she appears on the scene.

   The other principals — a crime writer and close friend of Laura’s, and the investigating officer who finds himself falling in love with his image of her — are likewise drawn in meticulous detail, through the use of their individual narrative voices. (The story is told in sections, each from the viewpoint of one or the other of the main characters.)

   The story they tell is basically a simple one. A young “bachelor girl,” Laura Hunt, has been shot to death in her apartment in Manhattan’s East Sixties.She took the force of the blast in the face, and is virtually unrecognizable except for her attire. Mark McPherson, a police officer with a distinguished record, is assigned to the case and acquires much of his knowledge of Miss Hunt from her friend, a sexually amorphous writer named Waldo Lydecker.

   There was a fiance in Miss Hunt’s life — an impoverished copywriter from the ad agency where she worked; and an aunt who is quick to complain about the fiance’s shiftlessness — and to use him when convenient. As McPherson delves further into Laura Hunt’s life, he becomes entranced with the dead woman, a fascination that Lydecker, who narrates the first section, notices and plays upon.

   When McPherson takes up the narrative, we find that Laura is not really dead; she had loaned her apartment to a model frequently used by her agency and gone away to her summer cottage for a few days’ contemplation before her impending marriage. McPherson’s attention is now focused on the question of who killed the ordinary little model who was temporarily using Laura’s apartment, and his suspicions eventually point to Laura herself The ending, narrated by McPherson, with an intervening section told by Laura, is predictable, but completely satisfying.

   Laura was made into a classic suspense film of the same title, starring Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Gene Tierney, and directed by Otto Preminger, in 1944. In another notable novel, Evvie (1960), Caspary’s characterization of a genuine murder victim is even more sharp and haunting than that of Laura Hunt. And her mastery of the deviant but still socially accepted personality is demonstrated to great effect in Bedelia (1945) and The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.