Noir Classics: Vera Caspery’s Bedelia (1946) by K. A. Laity

Having finally caught the film I knew I had to get around to the novel. A key change: the novel is set during 1913, when the writer herself had been in high school. Caspary must have decided the past was a better setting; there’s the practical matter of being truly snowbound in the last part of the book. That’s easier to manage with early telephone lines and few cars—or ‘machines’ as they are referred to somewhat archly in the text, as most take them as a sign of profligacy. 

The setting is Connecticut. The lovers met in Colorado, a very different ambiance than Monte Carlo. Whilst both Yorkshire and Connecticut have the possibility of leaving our characters snowbound, the specific New England location has additional resonances that fit the story well. Caspary grew up on the Midwest around Chicago, but with her writing success moved to Greenwich Village. For a time she moved to Connecticut with her mother to work on a play. She seems to have sized up the reserve, even provincialism that the state’s privileged enclaves have been known for—i.e. why Mame Dennis referred to the ‘Aryans from Darien’ in Aunty Mame.

I lived in Connecticut for nine years and I have a lot of great friends there, but yeah. Plotwise, Bedelia’s groom Charlie Horst embodies so much of that type. His provincialism, paternalism, and most of all fear of looking foolish to his neighbours, all conspire to keep him vulnerable to predation. His smug sense of superiority calms him at every turn where the facts suggest his wife ‘Biddy’ is a dangerous creature who’s planning to murder him and maybe that guy Ben, too. He says he’s a painter. He’s not local! Caspar spends a lot of her time tracking the doubts and self-congratulation in Horst’s thinking. He’s a snob. A sentimental snob.

At the sight of Bedelia’s pretty face and the memory of his ridiculous fears, relief welled up again in Charlie and he was compelled to blow his nose loudly.

[Spoilers from here on]

 

Bedelia is much more murderous in the book! There’s quite a trail of bodies—even the detective pursuing her doesn’t know them all. And she’s far more aware of her effects on Charlie. Caspary is brilliant in recognising the sexual power Bedelia has over her husband. He thrills to the sexy minx hidden under her modest Gibson Girl clothing. She manipulates him with subtlety, but she’s not averse to using the sledgehammer, too.

The film wants us to believe poor Bedelia’s final avowal of love for Charlie after he’s found out about her. The book is much more ambivalent. Biddy does claim to love him and she does seem to actually be pregnant. But when he tries to persuade her that suicide is the only way out, her last word is to sneer that he’ll be hanged for murdering her.

One of the most fun parts of the books is when Charlie figures out the source of Bedelia’s many names and the episodic way she tells her life story (itself a combination of fact, fiction and wishing). He’s such a snob:

Bedelia’s taste was hideous. Charlie had tried to wean her away from Laura Jean Libbey by reading aloud to her from Carlyle’s French Revolution. She had listened dutifully at the beginning, but, later, had confessed that good books put her to sleep. Charlie opened the first book. It was just what he had expected. A beautiful heroine with windswept locks was caught in the jungle. In the distance, tomtoms. The black chieftain was just about to drag Lady Pamela from the compound when Cyril arrived to rescue her from worse than death.

What makes the novels trash to Charlie’s eyes isn’t the racism, colonialism or paternalism, but the repetitive and unrealistic plots. The books filled Bedelia with a sense of entitlement which became an active career of murder. Sure, the first one might have been an accident, but it gave her a model to pursue. Formula is easy to produce. Charlie starts at the names:

Maurine. Chloe. Annabel. What about Bedelia?…This was the first time Charlie had considered his wife’s history as a whole and he saw it as unadulterated Laura Jean Libbey. The separate stories told at different times had seemed quite real to him. There had been no reason to distrust the warm voice nor to seek deceit in those dark eyes. Why should he, who had been captivated by her, doubt the passion of the consumptive millionaire, the gratitude of the irascible old lady, the advances of the shirtwaist manufacturer?

Our lesson, I guess, is if you’re going to fake it ‘til you make it (even without murdering inconvenient partners along the way), choose a more elevated genre if you want to get away with it. Great fun.

bedelia book