Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes murder mysteries are as much psychological as they are anything else. Solving them involves untangling the relationships among the main characters and deciding who is to be trusted and who isn’t. That’s the sort of novel Vera Caspary’s Laura is, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that story.
New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned to the case when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. Her face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast, so it’s easy to see how she died. With the help of her housekeeper, Bessie, McPherson tries to piece together her last days and weeks. He soon learns that she was about to marry a ‘blueblood’ named Shelby Carpenter, but had postponed the wedding for a short time so she could get away from the city for a short break. As it turns out, she never left the city. She had plans to have dinner with an old friend and former lover, a writer named Waldo Lydecker, but called him to cancel the plans. And neither man claims to know why she changed her mind on those counts.
As McPherson slowly learns more about Laura, and spends time in her apartment, he begins to get a sense of her as a person. She and Lydecker had been friends for a long time, even involved romantically. But she had met Shelby Carpenter, and become engaged to him. Despite her romantic involvement with both men, Laura retained her own independence, and had her own income. McPherson soon discovers that she was no-one’s ‘plaything.’ As a little time goes on, McPherson finds himself falling in love with her memory; he’s seen ‘photos, heard stories about her, and seen her things, so he has a clear idea of her personality.
Then comes a shock. It turns out that the body in Laura Hunt’s apartment wasn’t Laura Hunt. In fact, she comes back from a stay in the country and surprises McPherson while he’s in her apartment. After the initial shock, she tells McPherson that she didn’t know anyone was killed, nor that everyone thinks she’s dead. Soon enough, the real victim is identified as Diane Redfern. Laura had acted as a mentor to her, and actually given her permission to stay in the apartment while she was away.
Now that McPherson knows the name of the victim, he’ll have to decide who would have wanted to kill her. And it’s not very long before Laura herself becomes a suspect. It turns out that Shelby Carpenter had been having an affair with Diane. But, there are other possibilities, too. Diane could have had other enemies. Or, someone might have mistaken her for Laura, as McPherson did. In the end, it turns out that this murder has its roots in the network of relationships among the characters, and in psychology.
Although McPherson is a police detective (and there are a few scenes at the police station), this isn’t really a police procedural. Instead, it’s what you might call a character study of the different people connected with this murder. Chief among them is Laura Hunt.
The character of Laura Hunt has often been thought of as a femme fatale. And on the surface, it seems that might be the case. All three of the main male characters have (or had) strong feelings for her, and she keeps herself, in her way, distant from all of them. Is she manipulating them? Is she just her own person? On the other hand, many people say she doesn’t qualify as a ‘traditional’ femme fatale. Rather, she’s an independent, empowered woman who doesn’t want to be tied to one particular man. Her character is essential to the novel, as we see how the other characters interact with her, and how they feel about her.
And we learn how they feel about her through the points of view of the novel. The story is told from the perspectives of Lydecker, McPherson, and Laura herself (first person, past tense). Each person’s perspective sheds some light on Laura’s character, so she is seen as the saying goes, through a prism. As each narrator’s point of view is shared, this also gives the reader a sense of that narrator’s character. For instance, Lydecker is deeply devoted to Laura, and has nothing but contempt for Carpenter, who he thinks is simply using her. McPherson doesn’t think much of Carpenter, either, and it’s clear that Carpenter doesn’t think much of them, or of women (he makes more than one sexist remark). Lydecker and McPherson spar with each other, too. But underneath the interactions among these characters, more is going on psychologically (no spoilers).
And this mystery is much more psychological than anything else. There is violence (someone is murdered, after all). But there’s no gory detail, and it’s not used for ‘shock value.’ The same might be said for other explicitness, of which there is none, really. Instead, the suspense comes as we learn each character’s motivation and personality and work out which characters are hiding more than it seems. This is especially true of Laura’s character.
It’s also worth noting this this novel is the source of inspiration for the 1944 Otto Preminger film of the same name. As is often the case with film adaptations, there are several differences between film and novel. But Laura’s character is an important aspect of both.
Laura is the character study of an independent, successful ad executive, and the people involved in her life, including the murder victim. It takes place against a New York City backdrop and features a police detective who is affected by her as anyone else is. But what’s your view? Have you read Laura? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 February/Tuesday 13 February – The Anderson Tapes – Lawrence Sanders
Monday, 19 February/Tuesday, 20 February – The Wheel Spins – Ethel Lina White
Monday, 26 February/Tuesday, 27 February – Deal Breaker – Harlan Coben