Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 23, 2011

Pulp-ish fiction

The Man of Bronze

Laura (1942), Vera Caspary, 194 pp., and Now, Voyager (1941), Olive Higgins Prouty, 263 pp.

The term “pulp fiction” always makes me think of Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu, or Lester Dent’s Doc Savage. Those characters’ names take me back to the early 1960s, when I secretly read through my brother’s collection of thrilling tales. Even now, I can feel the cheap paper, still smell the ink. Gosh, those were the days!

Evil genius? Racist stereotype?

Raised on Nancy Drew, I found these stories so much more thrilling and risqué, and I couldn’t get enough. Of course they’re ridiculously racist and misogynist, but I was too young (too naive?) to notice. While Nancy Drew raced around River Heights in her roaster, with her best pals Beth and George, Doc Savage was climbing mountains, fording rivers, crossing seas, leading his band of assistants safely into and out of danger. What a man! (And very much like Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers.)

Well, anyway, this is all a lengthy intro to these two books, part of the “Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp” series put out by The Feminist Press. I couldn’t resist ordering them, since I absolutely adore the two movies based on them. And since I’d never actually read the books, I figured it wouldn’t be cheating during this period of no rereads, even though I can quote the movies practically line by line. It was good to see how nicely the movies stuck to the novels, with no invented scenes to bulk up a tired plot line, no new characters for laughs.

Best of all is the biographical info on the two authors. Prouty mentored Sylvia Plath (both were Smith alumnae) and was then cruelly portrayed by Plath in The Bell Jar. Caspary also wrote screenplays (including Letter to Three Wives, another great film). Both writers were prolific, and now I’m on a quest to find more of their work. Now, Voyager is evidently the third in a series of five novels about the Vale family — does this mean I can get the back story on her horrible mother? Oh goody!

Despite the frequent typos (is this a quality of all pulp fiction?), these books are fun to read. I heard the actors’ voices in nearly all the dialog, which could be a bad thing if you’re trying to fit the novel’s Waldo Lydecker (obese) with the movie’s (thin). Yet Clifton Webb makes the perfect Lydecker.

Caspary’s style is more complex, with the story told in three voices: Lydecker’s, Laura’s, and Macpherson’s (he’s the detective played by Dana Andrews). But each novel bucks the romantic model; their heroines are independent women who succeed — and are happy — without husbands. Granted, Laura Hunt has Lydecker’s aid and training, and Charlotte Vale has her money and Dr. Jaqueth, and even Jerry. But Laura and Charlotte are clever, forceful women who don’t mind being single. Each comes dangerously close to marrying someone who would not be good for her, and then realizes that she doesn’t need to “settle.”

Laura is definitely a “femme fatale”, but Charlotte only slightly so. But both are indelible characters, brought vividly to life by great actresses. Read the books, watch the movies, and have fun!

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