Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joy House

Gunnard R. Hjertstedt is better known as the prolific crime-noir author Day Keene. As one of Florida’s Gulf Coast writers, Keene enjoyed the company of neighbors and friends like Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and Talmage Powell. Keene also enjoyed a successful literary career that featured over 50 novels and a seemingly endless supply of short stories. Stark House Press has preserved the author's legacy by releasing a number of his novels to modern audiences. In 2017, the publisher released an important trade paperback featuring three of his beloved works - “Sleep with the Devil”, “Wake Up to Murder” and “Joy House”. The subject of this review is the last title, “Joy House”. The other two titles have previously been reviewed right here on Paperback Warrior.

There's a great backstory on “Joy House” in the Stark House reprint by crime fiction academic David Laurence Wilson. In his introduction, Wilson provides an interesting timeline for the novel. It seems to have been written in 1952, originally titled “House of Evil”, then heavily edited and re-titled as “Joy House” before being published by Lion Books in 1954. However, the novel's premise was outlined in a short story, “She Shall Make Murder”, for pulp magazine called Detective Tales in 1949. Since then, it's been re-printed by the likes of Lancer and Gallimard as well as being adapted for film in 1964 starring a young Jane Fonda.

Written in the familiar first-person presentation, the novel introduces us to a complex character named Mark Harris. At one time, Harris was a prominent attorney to the stars in Los Angeles. After marrying Marie, and acquiring a criminal brother-in-law, Harris' posh lifestyle comes to a crumbling halt. After an unspeakable act of violence, Harris flees Los Angeles as a wanted man. Cold and penniless, the downtrodden Harris finds a rest stop at a mission in Chicago. There, a beautiful, wealthy woman named May Hill is drawn to him. After learning about her own mysterious behavior, Harris learns that he may be offered a male prostitute role in May's life. Feeling as though he would need to crawl up to just hit rock bottom, Harris accepts a paying job as May's “chauffeur”.

Once May, and her maid retrieve Harris from the mission, they instruct him to drive back to May's residence in a seedy part of Chicago. Shockingly, May is worth millions yet lives in a boarded up house in the ghetto. Harris, knowing he's selling his manhood, accepts his fate in this strange sexual alliance. However, once inside, the house is lavish and features all of modern society's most luxurious accessories. Why is she living like a poor recluse? What are the strange noises upstairs? Who's laughing in the hallways at night? This macabre tale spirals into madness in typical Day Keene fashion.

“Joy House” is nearly presented as this Gothic haunted house tale. Keene kept me guessing until the very end with a unique use of atmosphere – isolation in Chicago. The house itself is like the fourth character, wholly charismatic and a pivotal piece of both the narrative and title. As Harris settles into his new role as May's lover, the book takes on a sexual tone that pushes the boundaries for a 1950s crime paperback. Like Jim Thompson, Keene offers us one, if not two, fairly despicable characters and winds the tension to see which will pop. The build-up to May's revelation is seductive, and the complexity in Harris' past life creates a whirlwind of taut suspense. Needless to say...I was hooked.

“Joy House” is a noir stand-out and the best of the three titles offered in this 2017 collection. You won't be disappointed. Purchase a copy of this book HERE.

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