10 Novels by Vera Caspary, Prolific Writer of Fiction & Screenplays

Laura by Vera Caspary

Vera Caspary (1899– 1987) was a remarkably prolific American novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Over the course of her long  career, she became known as a writer of crime fiction and thrillers, though she created works in other genres as well. Widely praised in her lifetime, this roundup of ten Vera Caspary novels illuminates the work of a writer who has been unjustly forgotten.

Caspary had more than twenty novels published (plus others left unpublished), the best known of which remains Laura (1943). She also wrote long short stories and novellas, not to mention numerous screenplays for Hollywood films, some based on her own works.

Many Caspary works featured young, forward-thinking women (then called “career girls”) who fought for female autonomy and equality, and refused male protection. Though most of her work is out of print, many of her books can still be found. She’s an iconic writer whose work deserves rediscovery.

According to her autobiography, Vera considered herself lucky to have lived during the “century of the woman,” and to have been part of the struggle that led to greater equality. Her work paved the way for the strong female characters we celebrate in contemporary fiction, and her own life story serves as inspiration for women who strive for equality today.

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The White Girl (1929)

The White Girl by Vera Caspary

The White Girl came out in January 1929 to very enthusiastic reviews and had run into a sixth edition by March of the same year, the month in which Nella Larsen published Passing to much more tepid reviews and poor sales.

Passing belatedly staked an important place as a classic fictional work of race, class, sexuality, and identity. Thematically similar, and published the same year, The White Girl was published earlier that same year and is all but forgotten.

As Caspary wrote in her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-Ups, “There was a rumor that I was a Black girl who had written an autobiography.” She wasn’t.

Despite the many strongly autobiographical elements in The White Girl, its heroine Solaria Cox isn’t Jewish like the author. Rather, she is transposed to a light-skinned young Black woman, her “camellia-toned skin” pale enough to allow her to pass as white, which she does, as did many young Black women in Chicago and New York, the settings for both The White Girl and Passing.

More about The White Girl.

 

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Music in the Street (1929)

Music in the Street by Vera Caspary

Music in the Street was one of three novels by Caspary released in 1929, the same year as The White Girl  and Ladies and Gents. Mae Thorpe moves away from her small-town family into a working girls’ home in Chicago, where at first, she is one of the unpopular girls with no boyfriend who stays home on a Saturday night.

Mae finds a man, though he is by no means the kind of boy the popular girls would envy: Olyn is an artist, an intellectual, shy, socially awkward, and worst of all, poor and living at the YMCA.

But then someone far more romantic comes along – Boyd Wheeler, a salesman. He has been coming into the drugstore where Mae works on a regular basis and she has always liked him, but never had the courage to talk to him. Eventually one of her friends from Rolfe House introduces them. He takes her out – to a theatre and a restaurant rather than an art gallery. Boyd wastes no time, even though this is the first date.

More about Music in the Street.

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Ladies and Gents (1929)

Ladies and Gents by Vera Caspary

Soon after Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was released, and well before Caspary’s Ladies and Gents was published, the death of the flapper was being widely announced. An article in the New York Times of February 16, 1928, was titled “No More Flappers.”

But unlike Lorelei Lee, unlike Janet Oglethorpe, unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flapper heroines Isabelle Borgé and Daisy Buchanan and indeed unlike Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, whom he named “the first American flapper,” Rosina in Ladies and Gents does not come from money or from high society.

Rosina is somewhat similar to Magnolia from Edna Ferber’s Show Boat (1926), who “learned to strut and shuffle the buck-and-wing from the Negroes whose black faces dotted the boards of the southern wharves,” and her daughter Kim, who becomes a famous actress in New York City.

More about Ladies and Gents

 

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Laura (1942)

Laura by Vera Caspary -2012 edition

Laura, a noir detective novel/murder mystery published in 1943, has remained Vera Caspary’s best-known work, partially thanks to the well-regarded film adaptation that followed. It is considered a film noir classic.

The slim yet action-packed story was first serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1942 as Ring Twice for Laura

In the excellent afterword for the 2005 Feminist Press edition of this book, A.B. Emrys writes: 

“Caspary’s fairy tale for working women takes place in a world of men who use women for advancement and self-reflection. The potential darkness of this world places Laura into the noir category and shadows even Caspary’s non-crime fiction … ‘Who can you trust’ was a game working women had to play frequently, and Laura makes evident that women might be labeled femmes fatales because they worked in the male-dominated business world.”

More about Laura.

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Bedelia (1945)

Bedelia New Book Cover

“She seduces men … but does she kill them? A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.” (from the front cover blurb from the 2012 paperback edition published in the Femmes Fatales series by the Feminist).

If you had bought any of the paperback editions with their unsubtle front cover blurbs giving the game away, by page one hundred you might be starting to feel disappointed — no one has yet died.

Earlier on though, Caspary would have teased you with the doctor’s suspicion that Charlie Horst’s recent illness may have been caused by poison – a poison that was perhaps given to him by his new wife Bedelia. But Charlie doesn’t believe it and we’re not sure either. Bedelia does seem like the perfect wife for Charlie, and they do seem to be in love. Or are they?

More about Bedelia.

 

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The Gardenia (1952)

The Gardenia and out of the blue by Vera Caspary

Even by her usual standards, Vera Caspary’s slim novel The Gardenia had a very quick route to the screen. Published in early 1952, producer Alex Gottlieb bought the film rights on September 3, 1952, and engaged Fritz Lang to direct (Caspary had no input into the script).

On the surface, this is a murder mystery and fits best in the psycho-thrillers section. But deep down it’s also an existential coming-of-age story, a female bildungsroman just as much as Jane EyreAgnes GreyFanny Burney’s Evelina, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth.

Unlike the typical Caspary woman, Agnes is not a highflying career success, but works with many other women in a telephone exchange as a long-distance operator. And  unlike her predecessors, Agnes does not have her own apartment but shares a bungalow with a roommate, divorcee Crystal. Shy, modest Agnes does not stand out among these many women, nor does she want to; her closest precursor is Mae in Music in the Street.

More about The Gardenia .

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Evvie (1960)

Evvie by Vera Caspary

Evvie is a sophisticated thriller described here succinctly by its original publisher:

“This big, bursting novel of the roaring Twenties – and of two girls who believed that love and art could save the world, if not themselves – is in our view the best book that Vera Caspary has ever written, not forgetting Laura.

Evvie Ashton and Louise Goodman shared a studio in Chicago in 1928, the age of “the girl.” Louise was a successful advertising copywriter in love with her boss. Evvie, married and divorced at seventeen, beautiful, artistic, was living on her “alimony.” Men found her irresistible – just as she found men. She painted, she danced, she read a great deal, and could discuss anything by repeating what her admirers had said.

But, in the midst of all the gaiety, Evvie and Louise found their lives becoming desperately complicated. Yet neither sensed that tragedy was to strike, until a horrible crime involving friends and families, strays and unknowns, the cream and the dregs of Chicago, gave the newspapers a field day.

The reader, mesmerized by the constantly mounting suspense, follows the involvements, the revelations and the shocking relationships of all those touched by the crime. But it is Evvie herself who will haunt the reader’s memory for a long, long time.”

More about Evvie.

 

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Bachelor in Paradise (1961)

bachelor in paradise by vera caspary

The newly built Los Angeles suburb of Paradise in Vera Caspary’s 1961 novel is rather like the aspirational estate of Northridge in Caspary’s earlier story “Stranger in the House” (1943).

“It is one of those suburbs distinguished in real-estate advertisements by the word exclusive. The residents spend large sums to separate themselves from neighbors whom they meet as often as possible at the Country Club . . . Pedestrians are seldom seen.”

With Caspary’s LauraBedeliaEvvie and Elizabeth X we had women at the center of a mystery pursued by multiple men, here we have a man who is himself a mystery pursued by multiple women: Dolores, Linda, Rosemary and her siren teenage daughter Patty. Divorces ensue, jealousy and envy are everywhere. One night, in his own house, Adam is assaulted by three separate jealous men.

More about Bachelor in Paradise.

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The Man Who Loved Hs Wife (1966)

The Man Who Loved his Wife by Vera Caspary - Feminist Press

From the 1966 Dell books edition:

“This is a brilliantly thrilling novel about a sick man who keeps a secret diary in which he records all the suspicions and highly charged emotions he feels for his beautiful young wife. The story reaches its climax when the wife, refusing to lie, admits to one act of infidelity.

Her confession induces in her husband fresh ravages of distrust and mental agony. Shortly afterwards he is found dead of suffocation … With absolute mastery of her theme, and in an atmosphere of mounting suspense, Vera Caspary builds up to a surprise climax with all the enchantment and skill for which she is famous.”

More about The Man Who Loved His Wife.

 

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Elizabeth X / The Secret of Elizabeth (1966)

The Secret of Elizabeth (Elixabeth X) by Vera Caspary

Vera Caspary’s last published novel, Elizabeth X, was released first in the U.K. in 1978, the year before her autobiography, The Secrets of Grown-ups. It was reissued in the U.S. the following year as The Secret of Elizabeth.

We are in familiar Wilkie Collins territory, with multiple narrators telling the same story from different angles. As with Collins’ The Woman in White and Caspary’s own Stranger Than Truth, but unlike Laura and Final Portrait, the narrators are listed in the contents at the beginning of the book, so we know in advance what to expect.

In Elizabeth X, a couple is driving down a road through a forest near Westport, Connecticut late at night when the wife sees a young woman in white wandering unsteadily; she wants to stop the car to help the distressed woman, but the husband is suspicious, thinking it may be a trap.

More about Elizabeth X/The Secret of Elizabeth

Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.

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