“Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror,” edited by Dorothy L. Sayers. From the library of Fernando Pessoa.
In case you just tuned in, I’m using Louella Parsons’ May 15, 1944, item on Rouben Mamoulian being replaced as the director of “Laura” to take a meandering look at the making of the film, which was released in Los Angeles in November 1944. Previous posts have examined the writing career of “Laura” novelist Vera Caspary, her original stories for the screen, her less than successful attempts to write plays – including the first version of “Laura” – and her work on the novel.
Before digging into “Laura,” I thought it would be worthwhile to examine the state of detective fiction as it was in 1941, when Caspary was sketching out the play and then writing her novel.
In the previous post, we found that 1941 was the 100th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and was informally celebrated as the centennial of the detective story. At the time “Laura” was written, the genre was experiencing a surge of interest. In its Sept. 6, 1941, issue, the New Yorker said: “One out of every four new works of fiction published in the English language is a detective story, and even the New Republic reviews it.”
In this post, we are going to look at some of the central rules of the genre as they were practiced when Caspary was writing “Laura.” The evolution of conventions in the modern detective story is a subject more suitable for a doctoral dissertation than a blog post, so I will leave the exploration of all these sets of rules for the diligent researcher or the aspiring mystery writer (you know who you are).
Keep in mind that such conventions are somewhat artificial and flexible – rather like citing the rules on the tonality of Western music and having Charles Ives come along and do whatever he pleases. Dorothy Sayers might have bemoaned the way romance muddied the clear waters of the detective story, but that didn’t stop her from introducing the multi-novel relationship of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.
Let’s look at a few of the conventions that Caspary follows in “Laura” and — more important — on the ones she violates.
As part of the 1941 centennial of the detective story, D. Appleton-Century Co. published Howard Haycraft’s “Murder for Pleasure,” which has been republished several times and can be found online at Archive.org.
Haycraft touches on the expectations and conventions of the genre throughout the book, but deals with them at length in a chapter titled “The Rules of the Game” (Pages 223-258).
Echoing Raymond Chandler, who liked the ironic title “The Simple Art of Murder” so much that he used it several times, Haycraft says: “Much of the public [has been convinced] that the execution of the detective story is child’s play, something that may be accomplished almost at will by anyone who wishes to take the required time.
“Nothing could be more distant from the truth — as hundreds of would-be writers have learned to their sorrow…. For no other form of literary endeavor requires a more particularized talent.”
“To paraphrase Poe,” Haycraft adds, “the writer of the really superior detective story must be both ‘poet and mathematician’ if he is to achieve the exactly proper blends of imagination and reason, bafflement and analysis, deception and logic, clockwork and showmanship….”
Haycraft notes the earlier efforts to codify the conventions of the detective story and with a bit of research, we find G.K. Chesterton’s “A Defence of Detective Stories” (1901), Carolyn Wells’ “The Technique of the Mystery Story” (1913), E.M. Wrong’s introduction to “Crime and Detection” (1926); S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” and (1928), Dorothy L. Sayers’ “A Sport of Noble Minds,” (1929). Also found here as the introduction to her book “Great Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror,” via the library of Fernando Pessoa.
The truly industrious will also want to examine Raymond Chandler’s various essays titled “The Simple Art of Murder,” one found in the Saturday Review and another essay using the same title, widely published online.
“Art and the Detective” by Cecil Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton’s younger brother, 1906.
From all these treatises, Haycraft distills two essential rules: The detective story must play fair and the detective story must be readable.
Elaborating, Haycraft says:
One of cardinal sins of “Laura” against the expectations of the genre is that the detective in the case, Mark McPherson (played by Dana Andrews in the film), is not the central or most interesting character – a problem that plagued screenwriters trying to adapt the novel for the film. He is as thorough and plodding as an accountant. In the novel, he specializes in white-collar crime and is assigned to a homicide case out of spite. He is an ordinary, standard-issue detective with just a bit of back story, ensuring that Caspary would never write a series of Mark McPherson detective novels.
In structure, Caspary also violates one of Haycraft’s rules: A single point of view. “Laura” is broken into sections told by Waldo Lydecker (played by Clifton Webb in the film), McPherson, Laura Hunt (played by Gene Tierney in the film), and one portion that is a transcript of McPherson’s interrogation of Shelby Carpenter (played by Vincent Price in the film).
And yet in other ways, Caspary follows the rules closely. “Laura” uses actual locations in New York. The street names and intersections are authentic.
And as for the killer, Caspary not only doesn’t hide him – she makes him the most interesting person in the novel:
One final thought: In her 1928 essay, Sayers said: “Probably the most baffling form of the detective story is still that in which suspicion is distributed equally among a number of candidates, one of whom turns out to be guilty.” Which is exactly what Caspary intended in “Laura.” Everyone was to be a suspect except the detective.
To be continued.