.Lady Afraid is not Lester Dent’s best novel, but it may the one with the most Lester Dent in it.
The protagonist of this one is woman. No Dent there. But as a yacht designer, Sarah Lineyack comes in contact with the most Dent-like character I’ve yet to meet: A man called Captain Most.
Reading the book, I came to feel that Most was an idealized version of Dent himself. Not Dent the writer, but Dent the seaman, with salt water running through his veins. Most lives on a bugeye schooner, as did Dent when he wintered in Miami, away from his LaPlata, Missouri home. The schooner, here named the Albatross, is remarkably similar to the ship owned by detective Oscar Sail in Dent’s two Black Mask stories published a dozen years earlier. The Albatross is all black, from the sails on down to the hull. Dent describes her like this:
A genuine five-log bugeye, about thirty-six feet on the water line, schooner-rigged with the typical raked-back masts. A one-man ship, this bugeye was rigged for single-handling. All sheet lines, even the halliards and anchor lines, were brought back to the cockpit so that one man could sail her.
Captain Most himself is… an enigmatic man. He did not rush forward with emotions, reactions, plans that were half-baked. He was no voluble extrovert. Probably in him there was little need freely to communicate his feelings and ideas or the effect of events upon him.
Most smokes a pipe and drives a station wagon. I don’t know about the station wagon, but in some of Dent’s photos he’s seen with a pipe. His face had a homely angularity, not unpleasant. It, like his hair, had been out in the sun a lot. Dent again.
Lady Afraid was Dent’s third hardcover novel, published in 1948 by Crime Club. I can only assume it sold poorly. Unlike the first two books, Dead at the Take-Off and Lady to Kill, this one is extremely difficult to come by. I couldn’t find a Crime Club edition offered anywhere for less than $75.
As that’s too rich for me, I borrowed a copy through InterLibrary Loan. Only later did I discover I own a copy of the abridged Besteller Mystery version. While I normally can't abide abridgements, this is one I'd recommend. Unlike Dent’s other books, this one might benefit from a little tightening.
This is not the stuff of world-beating adventure. Sarah Lineyack’s baby son was semi-legally stolen away by the wealthy parents of her late husband, and she wants the kid back. In trying, she’s thrown into a web of intrigue and secret agendas, and turns for help to the most reliable man she knows, Captain Most.
Dent seems to handle the female point of view pretty well, but for my book-buying dollar, there’s more than enough worrying about the kid’s health, and yearning for the sound of his voice and smell of his hair, and other such motherly stuff. Sarah at one point reflects that only another mother could possibly understand how strongly she feels. Can't argue with that, but it begs the question… how did Dent know?
As a mystery, this is still a good read. My attention never flagged. Had Captain Most been absent, I still would have enjoyed it. But with Most on stage for roughly half the action, it's a must-read for any true Dent enthusiast. This is the closest we’re likely to get to reading about him.
Links to more Forgotten Books on Patti Abbot's pattinase.