Along with contemporaries Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Peter Rabe, the Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original crime novels were defined by the work of author Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt). Between 1949 and 1973, dime-store spinner racks were filled with affordable paperback output from Keene and his cohorts.
“To Kiss, Or Kill” (1951) was Keene’s fifth published novel, and the setup is rather familiar: Our hero finds the corpse of a sexy, nude blonde in his Chicago hotel room and endeavors to clear his name since no one would ever believe that he didn’t snuff the dame. In this case, our wrongfully-accused hero is a former Polish-American heavyweight boxing sensation, Barney Mandell, who is freshly released from an extended stay in an insane asylum. Mandell can’t even be 100% sure he didn’t kill the blonde due to his drunkenness at the time of the discovery as well as his awareness that he’s - until recently, at least - certified crazy.
Mandell’s quest to get to the bottom of the situation takes him into the world of his own humble beginnings before he was a famous prize fighter. One of the fun aspects of this story is that even though he’s been out of the ring for awhile, Mandell is a sports celebrity. People know him and vividly recall his 42 consecutive knockouts in the ring, and while he’s on the run, he’s also encountering fawning fans seeking autographs.
Did Mandell kill the blonde and then suppress the memories? Why was he committed to an asylum? Why are the Feds creeping around this case? What does Mandell’s estranged wife have to do with all this? These are the questions that Keene teases out over the course of the thin paperback.
Unfortunately, instead of a tidy and fast-moving investigation to find the killer, the novel puts the reader through long, rather dull, narrative stretches of exploring Mandell’s own sanity. Does an insane man have the introspection to know he’s crazy? As the bodies around him begin to pile up, it’s clear that Mandell is either completely loony or he’s being set up for multiple homicides.
The ultimate solution to the novel’s central mystery is a bit of a let-down, and the road to get there has lots of dull, talky, repetitive stretches. “To Kiss, Or Kill” would have been a better 40-page Manhunt Magazine novella, but it felt padded at 160 pages. It’s not an awful book, but there are many better options with similar themes from the same era.
Keene has done better, and so can you. Best to take a pass on this one.