The Many Faces of John Dexter #2: Shame Dame Penned by Lawrence Block
Published in 1963 as Midnight Reader #471, Shame Dame is the only John Dexter book that Lawrence Block has admitted to writing, although there are probably others since in the past he has denied writing any Dexter, and denied writing any Sheldon Lords when he wrote many. His general pen name at Nightstand was Andrew Shaw, with one or two Don Hollidays and J.X. Williams tossed in there, maybe a Alan Marshall collaboration, since Dnald Westlake collaborated on some Andrew Shaws.
A better title for this would have been Bad Wife, as there are two of them. The novel opens with Frank Fisher, 20s, sitting in a bar on Hollywood Blvd. and celebrating a letter he just got from his agent, stating that a publisher wants to buy his first novel.
He had been working on the novel for several years, since getting out of the Marines, and then meeting Helen, a rich woman who has been his sugar momma. He feels good that he will have an income now.
He meets a girl in the bar and almost has sex with her but backs out, pissing her off. He has to think of his wife. But when he goes home to surprise her with the good news, he overhears her and another man talking — her lover, and they make fun of him, and she says she used him for sex but now he isn’t enough, and she ridicules his desire to be a novelist.
Frank sees red. He attacks the other man and beats the other man to such a pulp that it’s murder. Frank takes off, on the run.
The next chapter opens a year or two later in Fort Lauderdale, FL (Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington country, I can’t help but think Block did this on purpose) with Hank making a meager living as a drifter and boat hand. His novel was published but he has been unable to collect on the money or else the cops would find him.
A series of strange events happen…this is definitely Block’s style here, and by 1963 he had honed his crime fiction pacing well, publishing alternately between Cornith, Gold Medal, Beacon, and Midwood. There’s plenty of sex in this one, sometimes lacking in his Beacon sleaze books as Sheldon Lord.
Frank has a series of encounters with three women — 30 year old Norma, married to a rich older man (again that theme); her 19 year old stepdaughter, a rebellious wildcat; and a revivalist preacher who was a former stripper and still has a body. He has sex with them all. he’s a stud. Norma wants him to knock her up and she will pay him $5K, so she will have something to hold onto her husband’s money…the stepdaughter needs sex because her boyfriend won;t do it until they are married…and, drunk, he rapes the preacher but she gets into it, since she once liked rough sex in her sinner years, and then she falls in love with Frank…
What Norma doesn’t know is that her rich husband will also pay Frank to knock his wife up, because she does not know he had a vasectomy and he will use it as a surprise on her plan during the divorce…but seems Norma really wants Frank for something else…she has had a private eye do a background, she knows Frank is wanted to murder in Los Angeles, and she puts it this way: shoot her husband dead or she will turn him into the cops.
This is a fast paced and enjoyable read and with some toned down sex, this could have been a Gold Medal crime novel; perhaps Block gave it to Hamling to meet his contractual obligation. There are some interesting sub-plots: Hank working on another novel, Hank getting caught up in a student street riot, the preacher woman’s sordid past and her own sins and crimes…
Frank is indeed a “fisher” in Florida, fishing for crime noir and trouble everywhere he turns. Seems he can’t make a move without having strange things happen.
The ending was a little too moralistic and unrealistic for my tastes — Frank is a likable character and who could blame him for killing his wife’s lover on what was supposed to be the greatest day of any young writer, the sale of a first novel…I wanted to see Frank vanish with his love and the money and getting away from jail…
Two thumbs up as both a Dexter and Block book.