Bedelia by Vera Caspary

I’ve never read a vintage noir thriller before, and when this was given to me, I was initially sceptical about whether I’d enjoy it. The writing seemed trashy, the characters cliched; little did I know that this would prove to be part of its charm! Vera Caspary’s most famous novel is, apparently, Laura, which was made into a fantastic black and white film in the 1940’s that I’m sure everyone apart from me has already heard of. According to what I’ve read Bedelia comes second to Laura‘s brilliance, but I can assure you, it’s still a very good, and absolutely gripping tale of a woman who appears to be perfect in every way, until shadowy figures from her past appear to haunt her…

The novel opens in December 1913, and we are introduced to Bedelia and Charles Horst, a wealthy, attractive pair of newly weds who live in a large, comfortable house in rural Connecticut. Bedelia is beautiful, kind, sweet and devoted to her husband; the couple’s friends cannot stop congratulating Charles on how blessed he was to meet such an unearthly seeming treasure. Charles knows full well how lucky he is to have such a perfect and capable wife who has made his home and life a place of comfort and beauty. Adored and adoring, the pair present an enviable vision of marital bliss to their assembled friends and relations who have arrived for their Christmas party, but the scepticism of Abbie, Charlie’s cousin, and Ellen, his career driven former flame who was forgotten as soon as Bedelia walked into his life, immediately lends an unsettling air to the proceedings. Add into the mix the suspicious figure of Ben Chaney, an artist who has taken an isolated house in the nearby woods in which to paint for the winter, and the vision of harmonious domesticity Bedelia has created quickly becomes distorted.

Shortly before New Year, Charlie’s difficult digestion, which has been in existence ever since he married Bedelia, flares up so badly that he almost dies, and this will prove to be the catalyst for the rest of the novel’s action. Charlie’s frequent illness could be as a result of the stress of the house renovations and a busy period at work, but it could also be due to more sinister reasons. When gossip and rumour start, and mysterious visitors arrive in the small Connecticut town that has now been snowed in for the winter, Charlie will find the rug of his perfect marriage pulled from under his feet, and he will be forced to question everything he has believed in as Bedelia’s past comes under the gravest of suspicions…

I can’t really say much more except to implore you to try and get hold of this if you can. I sat up in bed until the wee small hours to finish it and was totally hooked from the first page. There are plenty of twists and turns and ambiguities to keep you in suspense until the very last page, and though this is far and away from the genre and style of novel I usually read, I couldn’t help but love it. It’s more than just a trashy noir, though; Caspary, through the juxtaposition of interesting female characters like the Stepford-esque Bedelia, the career driven spinster Ellen and the predatory divorcee Abbie, shows that the world is changing for women and that the Angel in the House figure is a dying breed. Bedelia’s perfection as a wife and homemaker is no longer something to be admired; instead it is something that Abbie and Ellen instinctively find subversive and disturbing. In a modernising world, such women who seek to totally submit themselves to their husband’s desires seem unnatural, and Bedelia’s flawless veneer hiding a darkness underneath undermines the image of the perfect housewive and makes her a figure of subtle menace; an enemy rather than an ideal.

Bedelia has been recently reprinted so I hope some of you will manage to read it; it’s absolutely fantastic!

22 comments

  1. Thanks for a great review! I had totally forgotten about Vera Caspary; but as soon as I clicked on your review I remembered she was the author of Laura, one of my favorite period reads. Every decade or so, when the mood hits (usually on a rainy Sunday afternoon) I pull Laura down from the shelves and enmesh in it again. Although Laura’s plot is good (although probably less complex than Bedelia’s) I don’t read it for that reasont. Rather, I go for the characters, the evocative atmosphere and the wonderful 1930’s feel of being a “career girl” in NYC. How nice to be reminded Casparay has another good book that’s worth checking out!

    1. You are so welcome! I had never heard of her before and was thrilled to discover her – I love coming across new authors and genres. I really want to read Laura now you’ve said it’s set in NYC – it sounds like a lot of fun. I am going to see if I can track it down, and I hope you can find a copy of Bedelia!

  2. I loved this book and thought that on the whole it was better than Laura, actually much better – far more exciting and as you say far more subversive, the end is utterly shocking whichever way you look at it. All my assumptions about who was ‘good’ and who was ‘bad’ were messed about with. Both are available quite cheaply in the uk (if anyone needs to know…)

    1. Oh really? That’s interesting Hayley! I’m really excited to read Laura and am going to try and track down a copy. I thought Bedelia was incredibly clever and suspenseful and it has made me want to read more noir-esque novels! I should get on that!

      1. When you get home and find you’re missing New York… I like a bit of Noir myself. You would probably also enjoy Dorothy B. Hughes if you haven’t yet read ‘The Expendable Man’ (the Persephone one) you’re in for a treat, ‘In a Lonley Place’ is good too but neither are set in New York. Sherwood King’s ‘If I should Die before I wake’ is excellent as well. You’ve reminded me of how much I love Bedelia, I wonder if it’s the stepford element that makes it feel like it could very easily be transposed to today?

      2. Thanks for those recommendations, Hayley! I must give The Expendable Man a go. I think Bedelia feels really quite timeless actually – especially with today’s resurgence of the perfect housewife – Cath Kidston cupcake mania, etc – it makes an interesting commentary on what underlies a woman’s desire to build a ‘perfect’ home…very Desperate Housewives!

  3. Thanks for the review! I love Laura and have it on the shelf, but I’ve never seen anything else by Vera Caspary. Bedelia’s on it’s way (and of course, I’ll probably end up re-reading Laura, too)

  4. If you enjoyed Vera Caspary, you might also like Elizabeth Sanxay Holding who wrote American noir mysteries in the first part of the 20th century. Perhaps her most famous book is THE BLANK WALL which has been filmed at least two times, most recently a few years ago as “The Deep End.” Holding evokes a certain type of upper-middle-class American domestic life and is brilliant at depicting situations where menace and ambiguity intrude upon the tranquility. Until quite recently, all of her work was shamefully out of print, but a publishing house has begun to reprint some of her 20-plus novels. She’s definitely worth seeking out–as much for the domestic details as for the noirish plots.

    1. Thanks for that recommendation Deb – Elizabeth Sanxay Holding sounds right up my street. Persephone Books have actually reprinted The Blank Wall so I’ll definitely get hold of that and try it out!

  5. Well, I’ve just found out that my library catalogue contains five pages of Amelia Bedelia books but not one of just Bedelia. What a great night of reading you had being tucked up with a bit of a thriller! As soon as I read the part about the dicky tummy I thought…”oh, oh”. You would love A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, Rachel, it gives you that same sort of creepy, but fun, feeling.

    1. Oh no! Maybe you could find a copy second hand? I did have a lovely time reading it – I love it when books so grip you that time stands still and you just HAVE to keep reading!! Oh really? I shall have to get hold of it when I get back home Darlene! Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. I have read neither Bedelia nor Laura except that I believe I have seen the old movie of Laura. I don’t remember any of the plot, though. This sounds like a great read for a dark and stormy night. I will look for it as well as Laura. I will know not to start them if I don’t have time to finish.

    Your review as usual is wonderful leaving me with a great desire to get the books myself. I will start the search.

    1. Hi Janet – oh yes, it would be a perfect read for a dark and stormy night! Make sure you are all settled in with a blanket and a cup of tea before you start! Thank you – what a compliment! I hope you manage to find copies!

  7. Ooh this one does sound good. I tried some noir and didn’t expect to like it. It wasn’t the original stuff, Megan Abbott seems to be writing now but as if it were then. I actually really liked the vampiness of it all. This one sounds a corker, and the cover is ace.

      1. Oooh thanks for both of these links Deb thats really kind of you indeed.

        Rachel don’t go out of your way to hunt one down, though its a very kind offer.

        Funnily enough Vampy is just my sort of thing.

  8. Did you know you get a mention in last Friday’s Daily Mail? It’s in a letter from an older person recommending the internet to other grannies. I only see the Mail about once a year so it was quite a coincidence I noticed it.

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