Showing posts with label Day Keene. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Day Keene. Show all posts

Monday, August 8, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 99

On this last double-digit episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Tom and Eric delve into the life and career of an underrated crime-fiction author named James McKimmey. Tom talks about a new Day Keene reprint and Eric discusses two brand new Stark House Press editions. Reviews include a 1984 spy novel called The Girl from Addis by Ted Allbeury and House of Evil, a 1954 crime-noir by Clayre and Michael Lipman. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 99: James McKimmey" on Spreaker.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Paperback Warrior Primer - Day Keene

Along with the likes of Gil Brewer, Talmage Powell, Charles Williams, and Lionel White, Day Keene is considered a staple of mid-20th century crime-fiction literature. Keene was one of the most prolific authors of that era and authored a slew of paperback originals during the 1950s and 1960s. His body of work is still respected today, evident with the number of reprint houses clamoring for his estate or orphaned novels. In this Paperback Warrior Primer, we are presenting an overview of his life and career:

Day Keene's parents arrived in the U.S. as immigrants from Sweden. Gunart Hjerstedt was born shortly after in Chicago in 1903. Hjerstedt would later use a modified version of his mother's maiden name of Daisy Keeney to establish his legal name as Day Keene.

Keene became a traveling stage actor in the 1920s, performing under the names of Keene and his Hjerstedt name. His notable role was Rosencranz in a traveling production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In 1931, Keene was living in New York and sold his first story to the pulp magazines. His first sales were to Detective Fiction Weekly and West magazine. He returned to Chicago later in the 1930s and started writing for radio shows, including Little Orphan Annie and Kitty Keene, Inc., a program about a female private detective that first aired on CBS and later the Mutual Radio Network from 1937-1941. 

In 1938, Keene relocated from Chicago to St. Petersburg, Florida with his second wife, Irene, who had been a Chicago school teacher. For a while, Keene attempted writing radio scripts remotely, but eventually shifted all of his creative energy to penning stories for the pulp magazines. Keene's writing slowed for a time in 1942 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Pinellas County, Florida.  

During his pulp fiction era of 1940 to 1952, Keene authored 250 published short stories. He sold another 16 short stories to the digests after the pulp magazines died off in the 1950s. He used the pseudonym John Corbett for stories when there was already a Day Keene story appearing in the issue. Ramble House has a number of Day Keene's short stories compiled into trade paperbacks. You can get them HERE. In the late 1940s, Keene relocated to Los Angeles and subsequently bounced between there and St. Petersburg. 

The birth of the paperback original was a catalyst for Keene to switch from short stories to full-length novels. Keene's first novel, Framed in Guilt, originally released as a hardcover - but then quickly re-released as a paperback from Graphic Books. As an aside, Framed in Guilt was released in Great Britain under the title Evidence Most Blind and remains in print today from Stark House Press. In 1951, Keene collaborated with Gil Brewer to write the published novel Love Me and Die

The recycling and expansion of short stories into full novels was common during that time. Keene sold a story called “She Shall Make Murder” to Detective Tales in November 1949. That became the basis for the Keene novel, Joy House, that was written in 1952, rejected by multiple publishing houses, and finally published in 1954 by Lion Books. The novel has also been reprinted by Stark House Press and remains available today. The editor of the novel at Lion Books was none other than Arnold Hano, and our review of that book is HERE. His story "Wait for the Dead Man's Tide" was featured in the August 1949 issue of Dime Mystery. It was later re-worked into the novel Dead Man's Tide, which was reprinted by Stark House Press.

Early in his career as a writer, Keene signed on with a literary agent named Donald MacCampbell, who also represented a fellow St. Petersburg, Florida author named Harry Whittington. Keene and Whittington became lifelong friends and socialized in the same Florida writing clique as Gil Brewer and Talmage Powell. Using MacCampbell, Keene's novels were first offered to Fawcett Gold Medal, who had right of first refusal. If they declined the novel, it would be shuffled down the hierarchy to other publishers like Lion, Ace, Avon, Pyramid, and Graphic Books. In the 1960s, Keene switched from shorter crime-fiction novels to denser, more mainstream novels like L.A. 46 and Chicago 11.

Keene died in North Hollywood, California on January 9, 1969. 

In his life he wrote about 50 novels, over 250 short stories, and 1500 radio scripts. Thanks to reprint houses like Stark House Press, Armchair Fiction, and Wildside Press, many of his greatest hits are still available today.

You can read all of our reviews of Day Keene's novels, including our podcast feature, HERE. For further reading, we recommend Cullen Gallagher at Pulp Serenade. Gallagher wrote an excellent introduction called "Run for Your Life: Day Keene's Wrong Men" for a Stark House Press reprint, which was the source material for this Primer.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Kid I Killed Last Night

Before he was a successful paperback crime novelist, Day Keene (real name: Gunnard Hjertstedt) was a successful author of short stories in the pulps. Reprint publisher Ramble House has released their seventh volume of Day Keene short stories called The Kid I Killed Last Night named after the story from the September 1949 issue of New Detective Magazine. The 20-page story, reviewed below, originally appeared under the pseudonym Donald King.

Steve Breen is a cop who awakens after narrowly escaping death the night before in a shootout with a street punk. The punk got the worst of it, and is now in the morgue thanks to Breen’s pistol proficiency and more than a little luck. The punk had been stealing a car while high on reefer (it makes people nuts, you know) and opened fire on Breen, a mistake the kid won’t make twice.

Breen is hardboiled as hell, but the killing of the punk has him thinking about everything that’s wrong and corrupt about his city. Due to staff shortages at the department, its incumbent upon Breen to investigate the background of the kid he killed the night before. His personal mission is to find the guy who supplied the kid with dope as well as the local monster who buys the hot cars from the city’s delinquents.

Breen’s investigative technique usually involves knocking the teeth out of the mouth of the wise guy he’s questioning. His brutality is reminiscent of the 1970s serial vigilante paperback heroes such as Mack Bolan. Instead of going after the juvenile delinquents in his town, Breen targets the corruption and culture that turns idle teens into violent criminals.

Overall: a compelling story that was plenty fun to read. It made me want to check out more Day Keene pulp content. Thanks to Ramble House, there’s no shortage of his stories collected for modern readers to enjoy. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, March 5, 2021

Johnny Aloha #01 - Dead in Bed

Many authors thrived off of the stand-alone mid-20th century paperback novels, but it was the creation of a recurring or series character that seemingly added additional mileage to the author's literary journey. Like Harry Whittington, Day Keene (real name: Gunnard R. Hjertstedt) is one of the few noteworthy crime-noir authors who failed to create a marketable series character. While mostly unnoticed, Keene did attempt to create one in Johnny Aloha. This Los Angeles private-eye appears in two of Keene's full-length novels, 1959's Dead in Bed and 1960's Payola. Within my budget, I opted for an affordable introduction to Johnny Aloha via the recent Armchair Fiction reprint of Dead in Bed.

As the name implies, Johnny Aloha is half-Irish, half-Hawaiian. After his stint as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War, Aloha became a successful private-eye in Los Angeles. He is summoned to San Francisco by the police to help identify the bullet-riddled corpse of a notorious pusher and pimp named Harry Lee. After the identification, Aloha spends the night planning his long-awaited vacation to Hawaii. His only obstacle is a beautiful woman named Gwen who is in desperate need of Aloha's services in locating her mother, Hope Star. Aloha declines the work but after recognizing a photo of Star, realizes that he knew her from his childhood in the islands. Canceling his vacation, Aloha accepts the $5K retainer to locate the woman.

Dead in Bed doesn't read like a traditional Keene crime fiction paperback. In many ways, it seems as if Keene made a genuine, wholehearted effort to create a stereotypical private-eye who would be fashionable and profitable. It was a red hot market with successful Pls like Mike Shayne, Mike Hammer, Shell Scott and Johnny Liddell exploding off the shelves. I think Keene purposefully writes Aloha under the same premise – a deeply masculine playboy and private-eye with a homely but flirty secretary and a police ally. The books are presented to readers in first-person narrative with the frequent injection of comedic touches. Despite all of the average genre tropes, Dead in Bed was a thrilling read that I nearly read in one sitting.

Gwen and Aloha have this thick sexual chemistry with one other that literally begs to be uncovered (pun intended). After numerous attempts at lovemaking, the two are always interrupted by an attempted murder, an unwanted guest or a snafu of the right time at the wrong place. Enveloping the sexual tension is the fact that Aloha mostly uses his wits and hands in place of pulling his revolver. There is gunfire, but most of it is aimed at Aloha. While the core mystery was delightful, the characters that Keene weaves into the story's fabric really add a much-needed backdrop for the mystery to evolve.

The Armchair Fiction reprint features both Dead in Bed as well as a novella by Bruno Fischer called Bones Will Tell. At $12.95, this is an easy pill to swallow. I can't wait to read Payola (never reprinted to my knowledge) to learn more about Aloha's next case. The sequel will hopefully determine why this private-eye never had any longevity with the author or publisher. In theory, there's nothing really separating Aloha from any of the other formulaic private-eyes of the era. Why didn't Keene make a more sizable play with what should have been a long-running series mainstay? Perhaps we'll never know.

Buy a copy of the Armchair Fiction reprint HERE

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Big Kiss-Off

Day Keene (real name Gunard Hjerstedt) cut his teeth on short-stories and pulp writing in the 1930s and 1940s. Like so many pulpsters, Keene successfully transitioned into paperback originals and authored 50 novels until his death in 1969. Stark House Press is one of the reprint houses that keeps Keene's top literary work alive and thriving. The publisher reprinted three of the author's novels as one volume – Dead Man's Tide (1953), The Dangling Carrot (1955) and The Big Kiss-Off (1954). I chose The Big Kiss-Off to read and review.

Cade Cain grew up barefoot and free in the swamps and canals of Bay Parish, a small town nestled just south of hot-footed New Orleans. After joining the Air Force and becoming a Captain in the Korean War, Cain was shot down by the enemy and remained a prisoner-of-war. After a long military career and two harsh years of eating fish heads and rice, Cain has finally returned to his childhood home after a 12-year absence. But not everyone is happy to see him.

In the book's first part, Cain finds himself ordered out of Bay Parish by the local sheriff. Not understanding this threatening situation, Cain later finds a beautiful Spanish woman named Mimi stealing food from his boat. After scolding her, he learns that Mimi is an illegal alien in the U.S. searching for her husband, an American soldier named Moran. After attempting to find Moran in Bay Parish, Mimi and Cain return to the boat and find that someone has shot the sheriff. In an effort to frame Cain, the bloody corpse has been placed on his bunk with the murder weapon. High-tailing it out of town, Cain and Mimi now must dispose of the body and find the answer to this wild and riveting murder mystery.

There's so much to like about Day Keene's swampy crime-noir. While it still fits the author's over-utilized formula of “wanted man on the run to prove his innocence”, there's more emphasis on a backstory between Cain and his ex-wife Janice as well as Mimi's immigration troubles and her speculative marriage. The author combines this deep-seated mystery with a nautical nuance and places it on a fast-paced narrative just brimming over with interesting characters. The sexual tension between Cain and Mimi is intense and hot. I couldn't help but imagine Mimi as a young Eva Longoria flaunting her wares on the sun-drenched deck. Keene's use of her innocence and inability to adapt to America to add even more vivid flirtation to the narrative.

I think Ed Lacy may have borrowed Keene's premise for his 1959 novel Blonde Bait. The idea of a fugitive on the run in his boat with a busty babe was probably a popular literary trend of the 1940s and 1950s, but nevertheless Day Keene executes it flawlessly inspiring further imitation. Aside from Joyhouse, The Big-Kiss Off might be my favorite novel of Keene's exceptional career. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, February 8, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 77

On Episode 77 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we delve into some hardboiled history with a discussion of Race Williams. Also: Archie O’Neill, Day Keene, Carroll John Daly, Ralph Hayes and more. Listen on your favorite podcast app, at or download directly HERE

Donate to the show at this LINK

Listen to "Episode 77: Race Williams" on Spreaker.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 73

On Episode 73 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, the guys discuss the life and legacy of Day Keene. Also covered: Arnold Hano, Hammond Innes, Howard Schoenfeld and Max Allan Collins. Listen on your favorite podcast app or or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 73: Day Keene" on Spreaker.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 61

Would you believe that there are series characters from Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald and others that you know nothing about? We drop some serious knowledge bombs on Episode 61 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast with reviews of The Best of Manhunt 2 and A Great Day for Dying plus a special bonus unmasking of T.C. Lewellen. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download HERE:

Listen to "Episode 61: Hidden Series Characters" on Spreaker.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Carnival of Death

Beginning in 1949, Day Keene (real name Gunard Hjertstedt) wrote over 50 novels. Just four years before his 1969 death, his heist novel Carnival of Death was published by Macfadden-Bartell. It was reprinted in 2012 by Simon and Schuster imprint Prologue Crime as an affordable ebook. Despite my preference for his 1950s work, I found I owned a copy of this book and decided to sample Keene's late career output. Was it a good decision?

A Los Angeles man named Laredo once fought side by side with Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs. Losing a leg in the fight, now Laredo dresses like a clown and runs a trio of children's rides in a shopping plaza's parking lot. After appearing on a radio show hosted by Tom Daly, Laredo's tiny carnival finds itself besieged by bank robbing clowns. Let me explain...

An armored car parks in the shopping plaza to run change into a store. While there, one of the guards decides to grab a quick cup of pink lemonade from Laredo's wife. Within minutes he drops dead from an apparent poisoning. While the guard's co-worker is distracted with the spontaneous death, clowns descend out of nowhere and create a confusing spectacle. One clown shoots Laredo's maintenance man, another shoots a woman while holding a baby. Another hops in the car, retrieves all of the clowns and begins throwing thousands of dollars in cash out of the back door to the money-grabbing hordes. The end result leaves two people fatally shot, one man poisoned and Laredo and his wife accused of murder. And a bunch of carnival attendees rich from surviving this macabre Shooting Gallery.

After the police name Laredo as the chief suspect in the murders and bank heist, Tom Daly emerges as the novel's main character. After Laredo's appearance on Daly's show, the radio host feels that Laredo is too genuine to pull off a caper. He truly feels the man is innocent and teams up with his editor to solve the crime. The book's narrative finds the duo in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and even Big Bear Ski Resort chasing clues and suspects.

I don't think anyone would declare Carnival of Death a good representation of Day Keene's writing. The storyline was a bit flimsy in spots and really disregards the police and their roles in the investigation. I can't imagine that a crime of this size (with press and people swarming) would rely on two radio professionals to do all of the heavy lifting. The narrative was simply unconvincing in that regard. Like his 1952 novel Wake Up to Murder, Carnival of Death still possesses two of Keene's strongest genre tropes – repressed desires and sexual frustration. Aside from those strong points, the author is fairly complacent in drawing up the standard whodunit and inserting rather anonymous protagonists as heroes. You can do so much better than this late career entry from Day Keene.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hunt the Killer

Along with Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and John D. MacDonald, Day Keene (real name Gunnard R. Hjerstedt) presented many of his crime-noir novels in Florida locations. These prolific authors were Florida natives or had simply adopted the state as their home. Often, these crime-fiction talents would even spend weekends together swapping ideas and fishing along Florida's Gulf Coast. So, it's only natural that their literary works were spotlighted by the Sunshine State. Day Keene's “Hunt the Killer” (1952) exemplifies that trait.

When readers first meet Charlie White, it's on the last day of his prison sentence. As he is stepping out of a Florida prison, there's a backstory explaining why White wore stripes for four-years. White, a WW2 veteran, owned a fishing boat and was making a meager living hauling in fish from warm Gulf Coast waters. Married to Beth, the two lived in an older Victorian styled house on a small island near Tampa. With dreams of escaping normality's prison, White was delighted to receive an anonymous call from a man simply calling himself Senor Peso. This unusual caller asked White if he would like to make $2,000. The $2,000 quickly snowballed as White found himself illegally importing goods, duty free, into Tampa.  After a few successful imports, White was caught by the Coast Guard and sentenced to prison.

Upon his release, White is picked up by the beautiful Zo, a Cuban woman that White was having an affair with before his capture. The two head to a coastline cabin to celebrate White's release. However, White discovers a letter that his wife wrote him advising that she has forgiven him for his past discretion and would like to reconcile their marriage. Truly loving Beth, White breaks off the fling with Zo. Shortly thereafter, White finds himself unconscious in the cabin with a gun he doesn't own. Readers aren't as surprised as White when he finds Zo's corpse riddled with bullets near by. Who shot Zo?

It's the age-old genre trope – the innocent man wakes up with a corpse. In the skillful hands of Day Keene, it's still an entertaining retelling. The novel's first half focuses on White's flee from the police across Florida, transporting readers into rural and tropical locations like Ocala, Ybor City, Fort Myers and Palmetto City. There's a satisfying relationship that White strikes up with an old trucker named Kelly. But, it's White's visit with his wife Beth that ratchets up the suspense. Keene's atmosphere –  an old, desolate mansion shrouded in Spanish moss – is nearly a main character as the “hunt for the killer” propels the narrative. The eventual reveal of Senor Peso was well worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, this novel has been reprinted by Stark House Press as a three-in-one volume that also contains two of his 1959 novels, “Dead Dolls Don't Talk” and “Too Hot to Hold.” There's no reason why you shouldn't own this in your collection. Purchase a copy HERE

Friday, January 31, 2020

Mrs. Homicide

Like his contemporaries in Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and Talmage Powell, Day Keene (real name Gunnard R. Hjertstedt) was a successful Florida Gulf Coast writer. With over 50 published novels and dozens of short stories, the author's legacy has endured thanks to publishers like Stark House Press. While a number of Keene's literary works have been reprinted for new generations of fans and readers, there's still an abundance of the author's work that remains out of print. “Mrs. Homicide” was originally published as a 1953 Ace Double paired with William L. Stuart's “Dead Ahead”. The only other printing was a 1966 release by McFadden. Both versions are scarce, but luckily I was able to track down the original Ace paperback.

The novel's conspicuous beginning introduces Manhattan homicide detective Herman Stone. Stone is in a precinct house watching his wife Connie being questioned as a suspect in the murder of a wealthy businessman. Connie was found drunk and half-naked in the victim's apartment. She has no memory of the victim or how she arrived at his apartment. Further evidence suggests that she had sex with the victim, and there's a message on a photo frame that indicates the two were in a relationship. The cops' offer is to waive the death penalty if Connie will confess. She refuses and Stone is left in the proverbial “rock and a hard place” position.

The narrative explores Stone's investigation into the murder with hopes that he can overcome the overwhelming evidence against his wife. Once Stone hooks a racketeer kingpin named Rags Hanlon, the defense begins to take shape. Stone's probe into Hanlon's business dealings and his connections eventually leads to his suspension from the force. Alone, with no allies, Stone's efforts to free Connie becomes a fight against corruption.

Day Keene is one of the most popular authors here at Paperback Warrior for a reason. His storytelling is masterful and his characters skirt the fine line between moral and immoral. While “Mrs. Homicide” was an okay read, I didn't find it to be of the same caliber as his other works like “Joy House”, “Sleep with the Devil” or “Death House Doll”. They can't all be winners, but “Mrs. Homicide” fell a bit flat in developing an engaging story. Disappointingly, nothing really happens for two-thirds of the book. Stone's procedural (and non-procedural) investigation didn't have enough twists and turns to really propel the story.

Overall, maybe there's a reason that this novel hasn't been reprinted since 1966. You'll find better Keene novels in circulation today. "Mrs. Homicide" may only appeal to collectors or fans that just need everything.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wake Up to Murder

In 2017, Stark House Press released a three-pack featuring notable Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt) literary works - “Sleep with the Devil” (1954), “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952). I had the opportunity to review “Sleep with the Devil” (1954) earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely. After reading his 1953 novel “Death House Doll”, I was anxious to turn the pages on another Day Keene crime-noir.

“Wake Up to Murder” introduces us to Jim Charters, an ordinary man living in the peaceful locale of Sun City, Florida. Jim has been married for ten years, lives a quiet existence in suburbia and works as a courier for a local attorney. But, below this average exterior...Jim is ready to explode.

Jim lusts after his co-worker, a fiery vixen named Lou. Longing to fulfill his heated desires, Jim battles his emotions everyday, living a fantasy within his own mind. On his birthday, His boss fires Jim for drinking with Lou and other co-workers after hours in the office. Later, he arrives home to find that his wife has apparently forgotten his annual anniversary of being alive. Wrecked with an evening of tasteless, tough liver and his recent termination, Jim's pressure cooker erupts after his sexual advancements are declined. Furious, Jim drives to the beach and begins a drunken night of debauchery.

The next morning, Jim awakens in a hotel bed with a massive hangover and a naked Lou lying by his side. While coming to grips with his situation, a man named Mantin shows up and provides $10,000 in cash to Jim. His only vivid remarks are, “So there you are, Jim. What we agreed on. Just like it come from the bank”. In a groggy, alcohol-fueled stupor, Jim accepts the money without asking any pertinent questions and Mantin departs. What did Jim promise Mantin he'd do to earn this robust reward?

Day Keene's crime-noir is saturated with repressed desires, sexual frustration and the elephant-sized burdens of life. Jim carries the weight of the world on his back...and in the cash-stuffed envelope he holds in his hands. The novel's narrative slowly unravels, peeling back the layers to expose Jim's marriage, career and past tragedies. But, this is a crime novel, and after Jim discovers Mantin murdered in a seaside mansion, the novel gains traction and propels the story into some surprising twists and turns.

Anyone familiar with Day Keene will quickly acclimate themselves to his storytelling. “Wake Up to Murder” possesses many of the author's tropes – an innocent crime suspect, easily obtainable riches (illegal of course), the scorned lover and a flawed protagonist attempting to right a wrong. Together, it's a winning formula and one that solidifies Keene's place in the higher echelon of crime-noir writers of this era.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Death House Doll

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 15, 2019

Sleep With the Devil

Gunard Hjertstedt (March 28, 1904 - January 9, 1969), better known by pen name Day Keene, wrote over 50 novels and is widely viewed as a literary giant within the crime genre community. “Sleep With the Devil” is a mid-career book published in 1954 by Lion. In April of 2017, Stark House Press re-printed this novel as a three-in-one alongside “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952).

Keene introduces us to the charismatic Ferron, an enforcer for a NYC loan shark named Bennett. Ferron's unwavering commitment has most recently been evident with his deadly beating of a young African American debtor. Now, Ferron is contemplating killing his boss Bennett and doing the proverbial “take the money and run” routine. The only issue is a connection to his greasy lover Lydia, who unfortunately can't live without him.

As we begin to digest Keene's malefactor, we soon realize that there's a deep dynamic with this character. Ferron has an entirely new life in creation under the identity of Paul Parrish. Unlike Ferron, Parrish is a devout Christian bible-seller that lives in a the tiny upstate New York town aptly titled New Hope. There, he's to wed the virgin beauty Amy under the giving but watchful eye of her wealthy father Wayne. Once the wedding bells ring, Ferron/Parrish will inherit a productive farm, new car and the beautiful Amy. 

Keene weaves this intoxicating narrative together with barbed wire. Ferron is the seedy, vile criminal we love to jeer, yet Keene miraculously prompts the reader to cheer him on, hopeful that in just the right amount of moonlight this bad guy goes straight. While a fish out of water tale in its own right, the author's talent to blend the crime with passion, purpose and redemption is brilliant. I really enjoyed this book and I'm thankful that Stark House Press felt the same. This is a much-needed reprinting of a classic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

To Kiss, Or Kill

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.