Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vera Caspary: A Lost Sister in Crime

By A. B. Emrys

When Vera Caspary died in 1987, every major newspaper ran her obituary, and they had plenty of information to cite. Over half a century, she had published 17 novels plus novellas and short stories. In addition, 20 films were credited to her as adaptations of her work, or were based on scenarios or scripts she wrote. The play she adapted from her most famous novel was still staged (and is today).

Her last novel, The Mystery of Elizabeth, came out in 1976, followed by her critically-praised autobiography, The Secrets of Grownups, in 1979. She was best known then, and only known now, if at all, as the author of Laura, her 1940s mystery about an ad executive targeted for murder. The novel was filmed by Otto Preminger as one of the first movies called noir.

I've been helping to get Caspary's work back into print and I made her a major focus in my book, Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary, and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel (McFarland, 2011). In doing so, I've met a fascinating character and discovered books and movies I now recommend to others.

Caspary's unflinching spirit made Sojourner, in a review of her autobiography, call her "a natural and unabashed female rebel." Part of her rebellion was her determination to be a professional writer. When she got turned down over and over for business writing jobs, she took what she could get and finagled her way into writing ads, much like her character, Laura Hunt.

Her early novels veered from fantasy (the tale of the daughter of side-show performers who flees to avoid becoming a tattooed lady in Ladies & Gents), to stringent analysis of class, race and gender-bashing (in The White Girl about a black woman who passes for white) to a family epic about class prejudice among a clan of Portuguese-descended Jews much like her own family (Thicker Than Water).

The Depression and her membership in the Communist Party strengthened Caspary's focus on serious issues. Yet it was murder plots, the first of which was Laura, her fourth novel, that offered the fresh vehicles for her to continue analyzing the dynamic between independence and the temptation to cling and possess, something both her male and female characters have to confront to survive.

Even her most classically-plotted murder books deeply embedded other crimes. In one of her most chilling plots, Bedlia (1944), a black widow novel, the tables are turned on the serial bride in a scene so callous it generates some sympathy for a killer.

She became one of the mid-century writers of what were dubbed "psychothrillers," and an older colleague of Patricia Highsmith. Fans of Highsmith's conundrums (and I'm one) would also enjoy Caspary's The Weeping and the Laughter (1950), whose lead character may have been attacked by one of her greedy relatives or may have tried to kill herself; The Man Who Loved His Wife (1966), in which a disabled, angry man keeps a deliberately false diary that accuses his wife of wanting him dead - and then becomes a corpse or Final Portrait (1971) in which an actor turns down the part of Hamlet only to play it in real life.

To be continued tomorrow ...

A. B. Emrys is the author of Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel and professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska - Kearney.


Dana Stabenow said...

I didn't even know Laura the film was based on a novel, let alone heard of the author. Thanks for the heads up.

barbara fister said...

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for this -

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