Day Keene: The man who "wrote everything"
and Other Stories
Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4
By Day Keene
Edited By David Laurence Wilson
Ramble House. 228 pp. $20
Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky
The "Thrilling Detective" website (http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/keene.html) says Day Keene "churned out some crap, but what's amazing is how much of it was good stuff."
The Case of the Bearded Bride and Other Stories, fourth in a series of Keene collections issued by Ramble House, offers, if not some of both, then at least some good stuff along with a few period pieces from the 1930s by a pulp writer who hit his stride in the 1940s and '50s.
Perhaps, though, the differences between the two indicate more about the fashions of the day than about what Keene could or could not do. The first three stories ("Pure and Simple," "Excuse My Crust," and "The Case of the Bearded Bride") are longer than the rest and appeared under the author's own name, Gunnard Hjerstedt, between 1931 and 1935. The remaining seven appeared under the name John Corbett from 1942 to 1950.
The first of those periods was a heyday of wisecracking crime-fighting teams, a trend whose most distinguished examples are probably Frederick Nebel's Kennedy and MacBride stories. These early Day Keene stories are full of wisecracks, verbs of attribution that sound odd to the modern taste for stripped-down prose (" 'She didn't have nothing to do with that Baylor case,' McCoy defended."), and characters with names like Dolores Delite and Adore Dorado (not to mention lead detectives named McCoy and McCreedy. Celtic names were big in the pulps back then).
Keene will use comprise in the sense that is usually considered incorrect today (" . . . one of the twenty-odd [rooms] that comprised the L-winged mansion . . . "), and at least once he has a character reclining on a chaise lounge, a widespread solecism for chaise longue, French for long chair. Was Keene/Hjerstedt a sloppier writer in his early years, or did American readers and popular writers grow fussier when the whole country went off to college after World War II?
Even if the war did not turn America into a nation of copy editors, it did mark a darker turn in Keene's writing. In "Tong Boy Goes to War" a Chinese American soldier paces his prison cell, contemplating his pending execution for a murder to which he admitted but did not commit. A cheater gets cheated with gruesome consequences in "This Way Out." An elaborate scheme with a gotcha ending ("Dig Deep, Brother") is leavened by what must be one of crime fiction's first serious considerations of the postwar land boom and its consequences for the personal lives of those who fought - and those they left behind.
These later stories may remind readers of the nightmare worlds of David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich, tight, constricted, and closing inward on the protagonist. Even those with happy endings take the protagonist and the reader through some hairy territory on the way.
If American taste changed in the decade between the two groups of stories, Keene was enough of a professional to adapt. Thrilling Detective says, "Day Keene wrote everything," not the sort of thing one is accustomed to in today's specialized reading world. If you read crime fiction, you know that Lee Child writes thrillers, Janet Evanovich writes comedy, and Stieg Larsson wrote grim, heavy tosh that managed to appeal to women's revenge fantasies and men's sexual fantasies at the same time.
Keene, on the other hand, was an earlyish representative of a world that vanished with the end of pulp detective magazines in the 1950s and of paperback original publishers such as Gold Medal Books. The late Donald E. Westlake came from that tradition, and Lawrence Block may be its last prominent and productive exemplar. These guys wrote everything. They wrote under their own names and phonebooks' worth of aliases, and the conditions under which they worked contributed much to their versatility. "If I'd had stellar success early on, I'm sure I would have written a lot less," Block said at Philadelphia's NoirCon crime convention last year.
These stories written under the Hjerstedt and Corbett names may surprise even fans who know Day Keene from his 1952 novel Home Is the Sailor, reprinted by in 2005 by Hard Case Crime. Online sources tend to begin with Keene's novels from the late 1940s on. Such lists, however, will include Keene's science fiction, his Westerns, and his "other fiction." Day Keene wrote everything.
Peter Rozovsky writes about international crime fiction at "Detectives Beyond Borders," http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com. He is an Inquirer copy editor.