(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Vera Caspary’s mystery tales often feature women as central characters. With their obscure or provincial backgrounds, they are often career women who have come to the big city for a climb up the corporate ladder or opportunists looking for a rich Mr. Right. Sometimes they are suburbanites unhappy with their situations.

In terms of technique, Caspary uses the devices of the red herring, multiple viewpoint, and double ending to great effect. In Laura, for example, just as the circumstantial case against Shelby Carpenter, Laura’s suitor, becomes strong, the focus shifts to Laura herself, and the circumstantial evidence against her seems to make her, rather than Shelby, the true murderer of her young friend. The reader is allowed to discover that the murdered girl, Diane Redfern, and Shelby had had an affair that might have led to an even deeper romantic entanglement if it had been allowed to continue. Yet, in the background, out of sight and mind for a good portion of the novel, Waldo Lydecker, the murderer, congratulates himself on escaping detection. Only after it is apparent that Waldo had not only a motive (jealousy) but also a weapon like that which had killed Diane (a cane with a hidden shotgun), does he become the chief suspect.

Caspary’s skill at creating double endings and writing from various perspectives makes her writing of exceptional interest. The tale of Laura, for example, is told from several angles: first from the perspective of Waldo Lydecker (an appropriately subtle and self-serving report on a murder by a man who committed it); then, when Waldo stops writing, the story is picked up by a more disinterested party—Mark McPherson, the Scottish-born police detective. Straightforward and austerely written, McPherson’s commentary is completely different in word choice and tone from Waldo’s effete, precious, and self-serving version of things. Last comes Laura’s own account of what transpired, which is, again, much different from what was said before. She is transfixed by the evil she witnesses, and her commentary is full of concern and awe.

Caspary handles double endings, like multiple viewpoints, with great skill. At the end of Evvie, the advertising agency head, Carl Busch, a headstrong, vain, and at times violent man, is arrested for Evvie’s murder, thus providing a seeming end to the novel, appropriate and commonsensical. Yet the novel has not run its course. Before it can end, there is a surprise waiting for readers: It was not the ad man who killed Evvie (nor was it the sinister gangster Silent Lucas described pages earlier); rather, it was the mentally retarded handyman.

In another example, The Man Who Loved His Wife, it is reasonable and even probable for the reader to assume that Elaine Strode was framed by her husband and her stepson and his wife because her husband created a diary that, on his death, would brand Elaine not only as an adulteress but as a murderer as well. There would appear to be no truth to his accusations, and his growing hatred of her seems to be the work of an unhinged mind. Toward the novel’s end, when it is determined by the police detectives that Fletcher Strode was strangled when a dry cleaning bag was placed over the airhole in his neck from which he breathed, readers are led to think that the son and his wife had something to do with it. They would, after all, have a strong motive (insurance money) and the ability to conceive of the plan.

Nevertheless, with a characteristically wry twist, Caspary allows the novel to end with Elaine’s confessing to the murder. The author has a laugh at the readers’ expense, for anyone who truly followed the evidence in the case would know that it must have been Elaine who killed Fletcher. Yet, because readers like Elaine, they tend to overlook the evidence and vote with their hearts, not their minds. The facts are that Elaine, bored and restless, did have a brief affair, did get tired of seeing her husband lying inert in bed, did resent his bullying, and therefore solved all her problems by killing him.

Caspary’s murderers, seldom obvious killers, range from the unusual and absurd to everyday people encountered on any street of any city. They have little in common with one another except a need to exert power. Some are genuine monsters; others are merely pawns of their own inner demons. Products of the heterogenous, violent American cities and suburbs, they carry out the inner directives that others also receive but on which they fail to act. Just as interesting as Caspary’s murderers are her victims. Sometimes readers know much about the victim before his or her death; other times, reader only learn about him or her through the reminiscences of others. In Evvie, for example, victim Evelyn Ashton, though she is dead from the outset of the novel, is resurrected for readers by the narrator Louise...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)