The Criminal Kind: Day Keene

March 22, 2012

Dead Dolls Don't Talk / Hunt the Killer / Too Hot to Hold by Day Keene

ANOTHER WRITER FINALLY GETTING HIS DUE is Day Keene (the nom de plume of half-Swedish, half-Irish Gunard Hjertstedt). Back in the 1980s, when Black Lizard first started reprinting paperback crime classics by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Harry Whittington, Keene was mysteriously omitted. The absence was conspicuous not only because of the high quality of his work, but because Keene was a staple of wire paperback stands during the 1950s, writing for all the main publishers, inculding Gold Medal, Graphic, Lion, and Ace. Keene's stock rose sharply in 2005, when Hard Case Crime reprinted his 1952 novel Home is the Sailor. Now, Stark House Press, that bastion of lost mystery classics, further solidifies Keene's reputation as one of the doyens of post-World War II noir with a superbly curated trilogy of thrillers that includes Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold in a single volume, with a perceptive and enlightening introduction by David Laurence Wilson, one of the field's leading scholars.

The opening lines of Dead Dolls Don't Talk (1959) tells you all you need to know about Day Keene, whose style was clipped, fast, and hard, like his characters' lives:

There was no boy and girl business about it. Both of them knew what they were doing. It was a thoroughly adult and sordid affair involving proven lewd and licentious conduct, resulting, so the State alleged, in murder.

The man's name was Harry L. Cotton. He had been a professional aerial crop duster. He was big. He was young. He had a way with women.

In the first of many twists, Cotton isn't the novel's main character. That dubious honor belongs to Doc Hart, a Los Angeles pharmacist and one of the jurors who condemned Cotton to death row. Fate is cruel and ironic in Keene's world, and within hours of returning the verdict, Hart finds himself caught in the very same web as Cotton — along with Cotton's wife. He gave her a ride, went back to her hotel, and now she's dead, with Hart being the only logical culprit. Going on the lam with the young blonde from his store, Gerta, Hart crosses the border for a frenetic 48-hour chase that will either prove his innocence, or leave him accountable for still more deaths.

One of the distinctive characteristics of Keene's male protagonists is their self-awareness. They know they're sleazebags, that they've made their own beds by giving into their impulses. As Charlie White in Hunt the Killer (1951) puts it, "It's part of being male to like to live dangerously." After getting out of jail for smuggling, he has a choice between opening a letter from the "good girl" or going for a drunken, sex-fueled joy ride with the "bad girl." He makes the obvious choice, and — what else? — wakes up next to a corpse the next day. Set in Keene's adopted home of Florida, Hunt the Killer is a pitch-perfect example of the "man on the run" plots that Keene designed with an architectural sense of doom.

Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold (1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money. Soon, he's juggling not only mob hitmen, but also stringent bosses who want him back at work, a venomous wife, and a hot-to-trot daughter with the wrong ideas about her daddy. Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, "What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?" The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today's top-sellers. Coincidentally, Ramble House Press has also recently launched their multivolume initiative to bring Keene's short stories back into print for the first time since they appeared in the pulps. Thus far, three anthologies have been printed: League of the Grateful Dead, We Are the Dead, and Death March of the Dancing Dolls (all edited by John Pelan). Right now, there might be more access to Keene's work than at any point during his own lifetime. It's a special moment, and fans of pulp fiction won't want to miss out on the Keene renaissance.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!