While American author Lester Dent (1904-1959) is best remembered for his Doc Savage novels, he tackled a number of pulp genres, including, of course, crime. Lady Afraid was published in 1948. This is the story of a young, widowed career woman whose tragic past comes roaring back with murder, kidnapping, dirty business dealings, and a double cross.
The novel opens with 26-year-old Sarah Lineyack, a yacht designer, who’s just reached an important moment in her career. In a field devoid of women, she’s designed a stunning yacht for lawyer, Mr. Arbogast. The yacht, named Vameric, now finished, was built by her employer, the Collins yard. It’s been expensive so far, over $168,000, and Mr Arbogast, although wealthy, a man she considers “should be displayed only on soft velvet,” seems at first glance an unlikely candidate for a luxury yacht.
Well, she had thought, there is a difference in the way of people and their money. Some have it in a mellowed, aged-in-the-wood fashion. On others it is a shiny varnish. Mr. Arbogast was definitely the first type, cured-in wood, or at least thoroughly saturated with it so that he had what the wine fanciers called bouquet and body and flavor. It was something that wasn’t developed in a single generation.
Sarah doesn’t particularly care for Arbogast–there’s something creepy about the man, but since he’s writing the checks, she always makes an effort to be polite. The Vameric commission “was her first noteworthy chance at designing a really fine deep-sea racer,” and if the yacht pleases the right people, Sarah’s career will be made. “Lo, a new genius, and a woman at that!” Arbogast has hired the legendary Captain Most to sail the yacht, and that in itself is a good sign because Most is picky about which yachts he’ll sail.
While this is an important moment in Sarah’s career, she’s distracted by her troubled personal life. Years before, she was married to Paul, the only son and heir of the fabulously wealthy Lineyack family. Paul’s parents weren’t thrilled by the marriage, and after a car accident that killed their son and left Sarah in hospital, they blamed her for the accident and seized their grandson. Sarah has tried to fight back, but the Lineyacks, claiming that she is an unfit mother, managed to adopt the child and she has been unable to see her son in years. Out of desperation, Sarah hires the shady Calvin Brill, a slimy ”gaudy” lawyer who assures her that if she kidnaps her son, this is the best channel of winning him back permanently. Sarah’s instincts tell her not to trust Brill “but his brash, foxy self confidence must have sold itself.” And besides that, Brill comes recommended from a trusted source….
Lady Afraid has not aged well. On one hand author Lester Dent gives us a female trailblazer for a heroine–an unusual woman who designs yachts, and yet the novel is peppered with generalized statements that while they attempt to show Sarah as a unique woman, effectively brand the rest of the female sex in unfortunate ways.
Now with an urgency driving her, she showered and dressed and did it as rapidly as a man would have done. She had, in many of her ways, the directness of a man.
She frowned at the powdered whiteness, for she was equipped with–as most woman aren’t, but nearly all men are–a distaste for untidiness in the bathroom.
She denied herself also the leisure for the normal female dither about what to wear today.
Well, you get the point. Of course this is 1948, and attitudes were different, and when you read vintage books, you come to expect it, but in Lady Afraid, Dent’s efforts to show the singularity and hard grit attitude of Sarah Lineyack condemns the rest of the sex. While vintage crime and noir often shows dated attitudes to race and sex, some tales are downright subversive in the way women are seen as unhappy with the lives mapped out for their sex and are ready to commit crime to break free. Black Wings Has My Angel, one of my all-time favourite noirs, is a great example of a vicious, deranged woman who can’t sustain the dutiful little housewifey role for long unless it’s a prelude to a crime.
The plot of Lady Afraid comes with twists and turns–some of which you see coming and some you do not. This is not Dent’s best effort, but fans of vintage crime may not be able to resist in spite of the novel’s shortcomings. Given the subject matter–the drive for a mother to be with her child, no matter the cost, this is not hard-boiled crime but a marshmallowy woman-in-peril tale. Too bad some 40s film director didn’t pick this up at the time as it would have made an excellent film.