by David Laurence Wilson
“Cortez ceased writhing and lay still. . . . His trained muscles relaxed in simulated death. He had fooled crowds before but never one so important. No one was trying to make him smile now. He wasn’t on display in a window with a placard stating the store would pay fifty dollars to anyone who could pick the live man from a half-dozen similarly dressed dummies. He was playing for keeps this time and the slightest twitch of a muscle would betray him.” from “This Way Out”, by John Corbett.
Real pulp. By its nature it is archaic, anachronistic, politically incorrect and just plain old. The writers of pulp, most of them, would be well into their second millennium if they were still alive today. The readers of pulp stories are invariably going to be younger than the stories they are reading.
Today those old stories are given the royal treatment. While their original publications crumble into eternity you can now find those stories inside hardbacks with slipcovers around them. It is a far day from when my mother stacked crime and western pulps in the Los Angeles Public Library, sniffed and wondered, “Why would anyone want to read these cheap, blocky collections of lurid prose?”
Indeed, what is the staying power of these words? If the species survives, will we still be reading these stories in two or three hundred years?
When it comes to Day Keene probably somebody is always going to find pleasure in the craftsmanship of this man. Keene was a master of constructing a scene, of laying out the pacing and perspectives of his stories like a well-built house. Even in his most convoluted exercises, however implausible, Keene did not cheat. He followed his own rules. At his best he was mysterious and sublime, clever if not profound, and all the time he was coloring within the lines.
This is not to say that it is always easy to begin reading Keene. Sometimes it takes a little effort to step into Day Keene’s world. For the most part he avoids the eccentric style and autobiographical touches that make some of his contemporaries so compelling. For Keene, this was not therapy. Professionalism came first. Writing was a job, a means to an end that included drinking, boating, a house near the sea and travel.
But why all this talk about Day Keene? You may have noticed that none of the stories in this collection are actually written by “Day Keene”. To the contrary, this collection is notable for two reasons: it is the first reprinting of stories by the little known authors Gunard Hjertstedt and John Corbett. Both of these competitors were familiar to the celebrated Mr. Keene, each was just as accomplished, just as handsome and accomplished a traveler as Keene, who was described as, a “Hemingway type”, by one of his friends. They were among the most intimate of contemporaries. If I haven’t made it painfully obvious yet, yes, they were two more names attached to the same writer. Hjertstedt was the man and Keene and Corbett were the pseudonyms. For just this one volume, perhaps, maybe the name of this series should be changed to The Short Stories of Hjertstedt and Corbett.
In 1931 Gunard Hjertstedt’s first published fiction appeared in the October 31 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. It was the beginning of a fabulously successful career that would extend posthumously beyond the writer’s death in 1969. This young writer seemed to have it all: drama, pace and characterization, and his first attempts seem just as assured and inviting as the stories he would construct decades later. He had a breezy style and a facility in creating characters, producing fun-loving, oversized personalities. He was an immediate but ephemeral success in the big leagues of the pulp marketplace. After a handful of stories he disappeared.
Here you will find Hjertstedt’s first and third published stories from Detective Fiction Weekly and another, “The Case of the Bearded Bride,” which followed a few years later in Clues Detective Story. “Pure and Simple” and “Bearded Bride” both feature the workings of the agency “McPherson, McCreedy and McCoy, Detectives Extraordinary.” McCreedy is six-foot-four. McCoy is five foot five and referred to as, “detective diminutive.” McCreedy calls him a runt.
Right away Hjertstedt began receiving fan letters comparing his work to two of Erle Stanley Gardner’s early characters, Lester Leith and Senor Lobo. The reader Mrs. R. Bulger, of Dayton, Ohio, wrote: “Just finished reading Gunard Hjertstedt’s “Excuse My Crust.” It sure was good. The best short story I’ve read in a long time. Every time I think of it I have to laugh.
“I hope he writes more like it.”
Hjertstedt had a name that sounded like a group of consonants looking for another vowel and a first name, Gunard, that didn’t fit with a wise-guy urban persona and stories featuring booze and broads and tongue in cheek mysteries. Somewhere along the line, after spending nearly ten years as a writer of radio scripts, Hjerstedt returned to the printed word as “Day Keene”, an adaptation of his mother’s name, Daisy Keeney.
“John Corbett”, the second name honored in this collection, was a reflection of a system that served the pulp writers well. A publisher like Popular Publications, which served as Hjertstedt’s home base, relied upon a number of writers who had proven their ability to deliver—and to produce reliable leading characters who could establish their own loyal readers. Sometimes a writer like Hjertstedt could produce as many as three stories, under different names, for a single issue of a magazine.
The fact that these stories appeared with the name John Corbett, rather than Day Keene, is in no way a qualitative judgment. Usually the name Corbett was featured on the cover, along with other fellow travelers like Talmage Powell, Wyatt Blassingame and the youngster Charles Beckman Jr. The name Corbett does not mean that this is second-rate Day Keene. For the most part these stories are simply shorter, easier to fit in a magazine when the word count needed a boost. None of them included continuing characters though often, they appeared when Keene was already contributing a story with one of his regulars. “This Way Out” accompanied “Quietly the Hangnoose Waits” a story featuring Keene’s one-armed detective Matt Mercer and his cork and metal prosthetic. Corbett’s “Dig Deep Brother” appeared alongside Keene’s story “A Corpse Walks in Brooklyn”, featuring “Silent Smith”, the “Silver Fox of Broadway.”
It would have been so easy to have misplaced this unmasking and then probably none of these Corbett stories would have ever been reprinted. The pseudonym was not revealed by Hjertstedt but by his friend Talmage Powell, whom I interviewed in 1983. A mention of “John Corbett” didn’t even register at the time. I took no note then of the fact that there was a sizable list of unknown Hjertstedt, or if you prefer, “Day Keene” stories published under the name of Corbett. More than two decades later I was looking at a transcript of my interview with Powell and there it was—the reference to Corbett.
Of course, further evidence was required, the most convincing piece of which was the fact that Mr. Corbett never appeared in a magazine that did not also feature Mr. Keene, the Keene byline taking precedence. And Corbett’s career both began and ended with Popular Publications. He had no apprenticeship and no decline. As you read these stories you’ll find settings that were typical of Keene—stories set in Florida and Chicago, World War II themes, and a preoccupation with the least likely niches of show business, including the “living manikin” business, in “This Way Out”:
“He stood motionless for a long moment studying his reflection. His eyes grew blank and glassy, his body rigid. Not a muscle twitched. There was no visible sign of breathing. Satisfied, he relaxed and poured himself a drink. He hadn’t lost the knack. It was like riding a bicycle. Once a man had mastered the art of being a display-window dummy a few moments practice brought it back.”
Here you’ll find crime and show business of a most peculiar sort. When the story teller Hjertstedt-Keene-Corbett got rolling, he was a steady plotter of twists and thrills. Sex, too, remained a frisky element in the stew of his storytelling. In short stories, radio scripts, novels and screenplays, Keene spent a lifetime making his craft look easy.