"After The First Death" is a 1969 novel by Lawrence Block. The basis of the plot is nothing new to crime fiction. This is yet another man-on-the-run story about an ordinary, law-abiding guy, who was originally a well-respected professor, who wakes up after an all-night bender in a sleazy hotel room, covered with blood with a dead prostitute on the floor. You say that could happen to anyone. Well, the twist here is that it is not the first time that this has happened to Alex Penn. The first time he spent some years in prison paying for the crime, half-convinced he really did it. No one, almost no one, believes in his innocence the second time around. Would you believe him after he had already been convicted and sentenced for murdering one prostitute?
The bulk of the book is about how this ordinary guy who isn't really a criminal-type escapes the encircling arm of the law and sets about to decipher the tiny bits of clues that could lead him to the real murderer. On the way, it is almost comic the way he sets out in desperation to figure it out, interviewing his ex-wife, her sister, and his best friend to determine who framed him. It gets really comic later when he decides to return to Times Square and interview the street girls who knew Robin, the corpse in the latest hotel room. Of course, with his photograph plastered all over the front pages, he must don a disguise: an army major on weekend leave in full dress uniform walking around late sixties Times Square trying to interview prostitutes without attracting too much attention.
It is a well-written and compelling read that aptly captures Alex's growing desperation and self-doubt as he poses the ridiculous question of who possibly could have framed not once, but twice, in exactly the same manner. It just misses being a great book, however. There is something missing from the book in terms of richness and depth, kind of like a sundae without the whipped cream and cherry on top. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile read, particularly for those with an interest in crime fiction.