In the summer of 1964, I moved from the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda to Racine, Wisconsin, to take an editorial position in the coin supply department of Whitman Publishing Company, itself a division of Western Printing. I enjoyed my time in the corporate world, but a year and a half of it turned out to be enough, and in early 1966 my then–wife and I and our two daughters moved into a well–appointed large house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was down the street from my agent, Henry Morrison, and a block away from Don Westlake, my best friend.
I’d done some non–numismatic writing during my sojourn in Racine, completing the second Jill Emerson novel (Enough of Sorrow), a Gold Medal crime novel (The Girl With the Long Green Heart), and the first Tanner adventure (The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep). In New Brunswick I installed my massive oak desk in a third–floor study and went right to work on a second Tanner book. I was free–lancing full time again, and glad to be back to it.
Once a week I’d go to New York, generally getting a ride in from Henry. I’d participate in the weekly poker game that four or five of us had kicked off in 1960—and that continues to this day, albeit monthly rather than weekly. And sometimes, after the game broke up, I’d pursue other interests in and around Times Square, catching a train home the following afternoon.
Around this time a lot of criminals drew “Get Out Of Jail Free” cards, courtesy of some Supreme Court decisions. Because their confessions had been improperly obtained, because they’d been denied counsel, because in one way or another their rights had been violated, they got to walk out and go home—at least until they got picked up for doing the same thing over again.
That was something to think about.
Around the same time, I was having the occasional blackout after the occasional long night of heavy drinking. I didn’t get drunk every time I drank, nor did I have a blackout every time I got drunk, but once in a while I’d come to with no recollection of having gone to bed. Sometimes I’d have spotty memories of a couple of hours. Sometimes I’d have no memory at all.
In time I’d learn that blackouts are almost invariably a marker of alcoholism. While not all alcoholics experience them, anyone who does may be said at the very least to have something problematic about his drinking. I didn’t know that then, and simply regarded blackouts as an unfortunate consequence of having had too much to drink. They were, I was fairly certain, something I could learn to avoid.
And my blackouts generally consisted of an inability to recall a tedious hour or two at the end of an extended evening, when no one was likely to have said anything worth remembering in the first place. A fellow I’d worked with a decade ago at Scott Meredith, a merchant seaman–turned–writer named John Dobbin, told me how he’d go on a toot on shore leave and wake up a couple of days later. In Cuba, he said, he came to one time in a bed with six prostitutes.
I sort of envied him. Hey, nothing like that had ever happened to me.
Suppose a man woke up in a Times Square hotel with a splitting headache and no recollection of going there? Suppose he wasn’t alone? Suppose there was a woman there, one he’d never seen before?
Suppose she was dead?
Suppose this had happened before? Suppose he went to jail for it, and a Supreme Court decision got him through the revolving door and back on the street?
Well, there was the premise. I wrote the first chapter of what would turn out to be After the First Death and showed it to Don Westlake. “There’s one thing you don’t have to worry about,” he told me. “Nobody who reads this chapter will be able to keep from going on to the next one.”
After the First Death was unquestionably the most personal book I’d written. The pseudonymous soft–core erotic novels were, for the most part, derivative fantasies; the lesbian fiction, however earnest and well–intentioned, was the projection of some sort of alter ego. The various crime novels, and certainly the Tanner books, had characters with whom I could identify—but they weren’t me, and their life experience was not mine.
This book came closer. The blackouts, the hookers—there was a lot of my life that found its way into Alex Penn’s life. He was not me, nor I him, but we had a few things in common.
And his girlfriend, I should say, was drawn from life. Her long speech, about an affair that didn’t work out, is pretty close to verbatim.
Macmillan published the book. It was my second hardcover, appearing two years after Deadly Honeymoon. It didn’t set the world on fire, but then I never aspired to touch off a global conflagration. It’s been in and out of print over the years, and I’m pleased to have it available now in eBook form.
It was quite a few years and a great many books before I wrote again about drinking and blackouts and all that. “The Sins of the Fathers” came out in 1976, and was the first of seventeen novels about one Matthew Scudder. Some people see After the First Death as a precursor to the Scudder books, and there’s certainly a thematic connection. And again to state what should be obvious: I’m not Matthew Scudder, and he’s not me. But we have a few things in common.