Author Day Keene, real name Gunard Hjertstedt (1904 -1969) wrote over 50 novels and is often placed in the top echelon of crime fiction along with Gil Brewer, Harry Whittington (he shared an agent with Keene) and David Goodis. Keene's “Death House Doll” was one of ten books the author released over the two-year span of 1953/1954. It's an astonishing feat for any writer, especially considering the magnitude and levels for which Keene was writing. Released by Ace in 1953, the book was re-printed by Prologue Books in 2012 in both physical and digital versions.
The novel concerns a Chicago woman on death row who was convicted of fatally shooting a diamond salesman. Her only opportunity to escape the chair is Army Sergeant Mike, her lover's brother that made a promise he's determined to keep. As the book opens, Mike visits inmate Mona and advises that his brother, in a dying breath, asked Mike to look after Mona and their baby. Unbeknownst to him, Mona was forced into prostitution by mobster Joe LaFanti after Mike's death. She might have gone one step further and taken the rap for the murder. But why plead guilty all the way to death row? What precious life is worth more than her own?
Keene writes at a whirlwind pace, consistently placing “Death House Doll” and its readers one step from the determined Captain Corson, the lead on Mona's conviction. While Mike gets further entangled in Mona's case he becomes the enemy to both LaFanti and Corson, both convinced that he's the benefactor of the murder – the man's diamonds weren't found with the body. With this much treasure still escaping the bad guys, LaFanti puts his men on Mike in a rough and tumble action spree that seemingly envelopes the book's second-half.
“Death House Doll” is another fine example of Keene's writing style – a blend of mystery, action and compelling characters. While Mike is the distinct good guy, the other characters have enough depth to blur the lines between right and wrong. It isn't necessarily cookie-cutter in its presentation, instead thrusting the story into the hands of readers in the same fashion as Mona's surprising circumstances are heaved onto Mike. We, along with Mike, never have a moment of composure. The race is on to free Mona, or at least find the definitive answer to the diamond murder. It's a dense narrative with a number of plot threads, but this author is a smooth read and knows his audience.
Engaging, entertaining...Keene absolutely delivers the goods. Again.
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