Stuart Friedman (1913-1993) was a multi-genre author of the mid-20th century whose books often promised wild and abandoned sexuality but were, in reality, rather tame affairs. Many of his titles have found new life as modern reprints including his 1954 crime fiction novel, Ex-Con (original title: Free are the Dead), now available as a $3 ebook or $10 paperback from Wildside Press.
As the paperback opens, Charles Garrell is bummed that his devoted wife isn’t there to meet his train upon his arrival home. Charles has spent over three years in prison for a liquor store robbery motivated by extreme poverty, and Nora promised that she’d be there for him upon his release. He walks to their low-rent apartment to find Nora missing, but the table set for a welcome home meal. A thorough search of the place reveals no sign or Nora, but an inconveniently-placed corpse of a man in the bedroom closet. So much for a romantic homecoming.
The cops who locked up Charles for the robbery are hyper-aggressive and don’t take kindly to parolees in their town. As such, turning to the police for help on the missing wife problem or the dead guy in the closet problem is out of the question. Instead, he turns to underworld contacts he met during his stay in prison.
At a crooked casino run by a con-man, Charles runs into his wife’s Neitzsche-loving cousin-in-law, Sylvia. Because this is a Stuart Friedman novel, she’s also an S&M nymphomaniac with an eye on Charles, but he feels nothing but revulsion for her. She claims to know something about Nora’s disappearance, and the price for her help is sex. Meanwhile, Charles feels the need to pursue logical leads to find his missing bride and resolve the small issue of the dead corpse decomposing in his closet at home. The trajectory of the relationship between Charles and Sylvia was bizarre and not completely credible.
Charles also meets a hot little cocktail waitress named Cleo with an eye on Charles. Having been locked up for three years, Charles is understandably starved for a woman, and sweet Cleo is hot to trot. She’s presented as a kindhearted seductress without an agenda - completely the opposite of Sylvia. The quandary of Sexy Cleo vs. Missing Wife was set-up to be the central moral dilemma Charles must navigate while also solving the novel’s vexing mysteries. However, not much came of it.
The search for Nora and the truth about the murdered man in the closet was pretty satisfying, but the ultimate solution left me cold. Can you enjoy a sexy mystery and dislike the punch line? If so, then you might enjoy Con-Man. It was a nice ride, but the destination just wasn’t to my taste.