The Many Faces of John Dexter #4: Sharing Sharon by Harry Whittington (Idle Hour Books #402, 1965)
Lynn Munore describes this one as
James M. Cain country: Sharon seduces her young lover Steve into murdering Pete, her older, well-to-do husband. Steve does not need much convincing. Cain told this same story in masterpieces like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. SHARING SHARON is not a masterpiece. Not knowing just how to classify this genre, bookstores usually group Cain with the murder mysteries. But there is no mystery who killed the husband. We are in on it from the start and ride it out right to the end of the line.
Steve is a punk, arrested for robbing Pete’s grocery store by a tough cop named Frank Lock. Pete is a kind-hearted guy, who arranges a job at his store for Steve on probation. That’s where Steve meets Sharon. Sharon is all screwed up because she was molested as a young girl by kindly old Uncle Wilbur…
Indeed, the incest history Sharon has are pretty explicit for a book of this era; by 1965 things were less stringent. “Molest” isn’t the correct term — for all the innocence feigned, we gradually learn that Sharon is a calculating, manipulative dame fatale; she makes men feel as if they are controlling her, when in fact she’s the puppet-master, using her sexuality to hoodwink them…
Sharon Sharon certainly has flip appeal with plenty of sexual stuff in each chapter — from the first page, we see Sharon fighting off Steve’s advances while in her husband’s new car, but she then gives in, urges him on. After, he takes her panties and stuffs them in his pocket as a trophy — really so he has proof of his having made her to his cousin and crime partner, Corb, whom he made a $10 bet with. Corb thinks such a hot married woman can’t be made by a 19 year old guy, but Steve proves otherwise.
This novel also makes some bold sexual literature choices — Steve and his cousin recall getting a 13-year-old girl drunk and getting caught by the cops having sex with her in a parked car; they think the girl is not too bright when in fact she outdoes the boys in sheer nymphomania. Later in the book, Steve and Corb pick up an underage minx at a country dance.
She didn’t look anymore than fifteen, with small hard breasts like green oranges, but she wore make-up caked on her thin cheeks, destroying any sign of youth or freshness […] Steve took her clothes off as soon as they were in the hotel room. Her body was skinny underdeveloped, b ut no matter how old she was, she was wild with readiness […]
She stared at him. “You think I’m pretty, big man?”
“You’re good-looking, baby. And I’m going to teach you all you need to know about men.”
“I’ve been making love steady since I was seven years old,” she boasted. (pp. 152-154)
Sounds like a passage out of Henry Miller’s Under the Rooftops of Paris.
Then there is Sharon, sent, at age 5. to live with her prudish Aunt Pru after her folks divorce. Years later, as she goes ripe, she participates in a love affair with her uncle, Uncle Wilmer — he doesn’t molest her, she instigates it at age 14, going into his room (he and Aunt Pru have their own bedrooms) one day when he’s home sick, exposing her young breasts and enticing him to touch her. He’s reluctant, feels guilty, but he falls under her spell. Whittington is vague in detail but allows enough information to spark the taboo of imagination:
Gradually, Uncle Wilmer’s desires and her brimming need overcame his inhibitions, his reluctance, his sense of wrong. He taught her everything. He taught her what pleased a man most and how to reawaken even the tirednest man. He carried her in excitement of heights she never dreamed of. She came to look forward to Wilmer’s newest lesson, to his hands on her legs and buttocks and breasts, to all the glorious things he allowed her to do to them to repay him. (p. 49)
For three years this goes on until one day he has a heart attack while arguing with Aunt Pru. At 17, Sharon leaves her aunt, there’s no reason to stay since the love of her life is now gone, and she blames her aunt for Wilmer’s death.
It’s no surprise that at age 19 she marries an older man, Pete, who has made a name for himself as a model citizen and manager of several grocery stores. In an act of social civility, he talks the parole board into going easy on Steve, who tried to rob him, by giving Steve a job — Pete believes he can make a reformed citizen out of Steve. Steve plays the role, but deep inside he hates Pete and all he stands for, and covets what Steve has: money, a nice car, and a sexy wife.
So he seduces that wife, Sharon; and as much as she resits him, tells him to go away, tells him to forget it, the minute he touches her, she submits to him, begs for it, needs it. He makes love to her the way her uncle did, with force and expertise, not the safe and vanilla sex she gets from her husband.
Sharon is an interesting study in female sexual conflict: when Steve is not around, she feels guilty, and her resolve is to stay away from the temptation; but when he touches and kisses and manhandles her, her blood boils and she can’t get enough. Steve knows this, he knows what kind of woman she is, and he plays on her weakness.
No matter how bad he treats her — and he does treat her like dirt, laughing at her resistance, making her beg for sex — she still wants him, believes she needs him. So she talks Steve into the oldest story in crime noir: kill her husband, and they’ll have all the money and material possessions.
But is this all for real? Or has Sharon been playing Steve all along, pretending to be weak, pretending submissiveness, just to get him to do the evil deed of homicide?
At first Steve refuses, says she’s crazy — he’s on parole for one, and he’s a lover, not a killer. But she turns the table and seduces him with the notion of money, never having to work another day, and having Sharon all he wants. She even comes up with a plan that will make the murder look like Steve was merely acting in self-defense, that Pete has become insanely jealous of any man who looks at his wife.
In one sex scene between Pete and Sharon, she says the same things to her husband that she says to Steve, how much she needs his touch and the sex…the things she once told Uncle Wilmer. This is a clue…
Pete knows she’s been seeing another man, he doesn’t know who. He imagines it may be a banker he knows, or other wealthy and accomplished men in town — he never thinks that it’s “the kid” Steve, that she would want someone younger, a criminal, over him…
Then there’s the tough detective, Frank Lock, whom reminds Sharon of Uncle Wilmer more than any other man…she then sets her seduction moves on the cop, not only for his Uncle Wilmer-ness, but to deflect any suspicion that she was involved in the murder plot.
No, this is no masterpiece, not like Cain’s novels or even Orrie Hitt’s with similar situations, but of the handful of Whittington Corniths/Nightstands I have read thus far, this is the best. Maybe I have a bent for dark crime tales like this, filled with desperate liars, cheats, crooks, and vixens. My one gripe is that the ending is somewhat weak; I was hoping for s surprise twist but it falls into predictability.
As for the young punk Steve, we almost feel sorry for him, but he’s just too much of an asshole who deserves to get the hoodwink from Sharon. With Cain and Hitt, despite the male’s criminal intent or deed, we feel bad for the guy for being a sucker to a manipulative lady…here, not so: Steve may be slick and a stud, but he’s also stupid.
I get the feeling Whitiongton enjoyed writing this one, rather than rehashing an older book or adding in sex scenes to unsold manuscripts to meet a paycheck deadline.