Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bedelia – Vera Caspary

If the idea of Mills and Boon romance makes you want to gnash your teeth and commit a violent crime than ‘Bedelia’ is almost certainly the book you’re after. My copy was a Christmas present and is my second brush with Vera Caspary, I read ‘Laura’ (which she is better known for) back in the summer looking for hard boiled noir and ending up with romance. I was very so-so about ‘Laura’ but my heart leapt when I saw the tag line on ‘Bedelia’- “She Seduces Men – But Does She Kill Them? A mystery about the wickedest woman who ever loved.”

Written in 1945 this is a cracking little thriller as well as being (and this is slightly coincidental) a sort of anti-Mills & Boon. The scene opens on the evening of Christmas day 1913 – newly married Charlie Horst has just lit the Yule log he’s had drying all year and feeling himself the happiest of men as he contemplates his wife – Bedelia. She appears to be the perfect wife; basically an angel in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom (Caspary is careful to mention her black silk corsets, experience, and voluptuous appearance as often as she does Bedelia’s housekeeping and cooking abilities). Charlie who’s a very ordinary looking and somewhat insecure proposition can’t believe his luck – he’s not even particularly wealthy, which is why when his wife announces she’s pregnant he takes out a large life insurance policy...

It’s destined to be the last evenings of Charlie’s happiness – as the rest of the evening unfolds the first cracks appear in this image of domestic bliss and by the end of the week things are looking pretty bleak. Bedelia is slowly exposed as a nervous inconsistent creature with a past, Charlie begins to realise that the bits and pieces about her life that she’s let slip don’t add up. He’s also becoming increasingly suspicious of his friend and neighbour Ben Chaney and the effect he seems to have on his wife – is Ben all he seems and how much longer can Charlie gloss over Bedelia’s faults? Especially when he’s struck down by an almost deadly attack of indigestion and the local doctor starts to behave very strangely refusing to let him eat anything prepared by his wife. And then they get snowed in...

I’m not giving much away when I tell you that Bedelia turns out to be a ‘Kitten with claws’ (it’s on the back cover for a start) who may have left a string of dead husbands behind her, but I won’t spoil the end which is both deeply chilling and slightly surprising. This is pulp fiction at its cleverest and best, a good tense read that messes with some preconceptions along the way. Caspary doesn’t do anything to excuse Bedelia’s actions – there’s no question about her being both dangerous and unbalanced, but she makes Charlie subtly unsympathetic at the same time; not to the point that you want him dead but enough to make him vaguely unlikable.

He’s a jealous man, an angry man, a man who might become violent. A man whose mothers body was hardly cold when he started remodelling her house, a man who enjoys knowing his old friend Ellen is in love with him – expected to marry him until he came home from a holiday with a new wife for her to befriend, and by the by a man with thinning hair. Bedelia on the other hand put’s her all into bolstering his ego, making him comfortable, pleasing him in bed, and entertaining his friends. She’s an expert wife who seems to enjoy the man in her life – although crucially we never really understand what she thinks or why. There’s a hint of a tough childhood but nothing specific is revealed; the real Bedelia will remain a mystery. In fact apart from that bad habit of doing away with her husband’s (a spiritual daughter of Braddon’s Lady Audley) she is the perfect submissive Mills & Boon style miss...

As an antidote to romance with a feminist twist it would be hard to find a better book. There’s a film version which I’ve never seen but which sounds equally intriguing so it looks like two neglected classics for the price of one – should either version cross your path don’t ignore it ‘Bedelia’ is a treat.


  1. I have been reading about your Mills and Boon post with intrigue. I have never read one. This books sounds darkly interesting.

    Perhaps I need to venture into some Mills and Boon.

  2. Thats sounds like wicked fun. Love the retro cover as well.

  3. Josbookjourney - Bedelia is both dark and interesting with a really shockingly chilling end, and is basically the antithesis of an M&B which tend to the light and fluffy and always end happily ever after.

    Bedelia is well worth seeking out though especially if you liked 'Lady Audley's Secret'.

    Jessica - it's a good read which raises a lot of questions - and I love the cover.