Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968) was an accomplished author of crime and noir fiction during the dawn of paperback original novels as a popular form of entertainment. His first published book was “The Woman Aroused” originally released in 1951 by Avon under the pen name “Ed Lacey,” a pseudonym later streamlined into “Ed Lacy” for the majority of his published works. His debut has been reprinted several times and remains available as a 99 cent Kindle eBook.
When we meet our narrator, George Jackson, he is separated from his fashionista wife. They still get together once a month to watch a movie, screw, and fight, but the functional marriage is basically over. George works as a writer for an oil company’s internal newsletter and shares his backstory with the reader about growing up as a child in Manhattan with a successful plumber as a father. His personal history is fascinating and broadcasts to the reader that this won’t be your typical helping of noir fiction.
One morning George is surprised by a visit from an old friend named Hank Conley who has just returned to New York after nearly a decade in the Army - a period that encompassed World War 2 and its aftermath. Hank gives George an envelope containing $7,000 in cash and asks George to stash the loot until Hank’s divorce is final, so he can begin enjoying his savings. It helps to bear in mind that in 1951, $7,000 was enough money to base an entire novel around.
Of course, Hank dies under suspicious circumstances while George remains in possession of the $7,000 - creating a moral dilemma for our hero. While still deciding that to do, George travels across Manhattan to meet Hank’s widow, and you can see exactly where this is going. Then things turn in a very different - and much, much darker - direction than I was anticipating. I don’t want to give it away, but this was way more twisted and perverse than the femme fatale story I was expecting. Instead, the author wrote a novel about survivors coping with the traumas of war that echo long after the final shots are fired. “The Woman Aroused” is not really a crime novel, an action story, a mystery, or a noir drama. The book isn’t easy to classify, but it’s unquestionably the kind of fiction that will stay with you long after it’s over.
This being the first novel for Zinberg/Lacey/Lacy, it’s clear that the author had a lifetime of thoughts and ideas in his mind to play with in his narrative. As such, this short work is peppered with Big Ideas about war, peace, love, marriage, economics, atrocities, and more. Just because a paperback is essentially pulp fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful - and deeply unsettling - in the process. If you’re looking for something completely different, “The Woman Aroused” is a well-executed literary oddity. Recommended.
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