DAY KEENE IN
Introduction by Bill Crider
My introduction to Day Keene came through paperback novels. When I began to collect them seriously in the 1960s, it seemed that Keene turned up everywhere. He wasn’t just prolific. He was also popular with publishers, and his books came out from nearly all of them. I have novels by Keene (originals and reprints) from an impressive list of publishers from A to Z: Ace, Avon, Berkley, Dell, Gold Medal, Graphic, Lion, McFadden, Phantom, Pyramid, Signet, Unibooks, Zenith, and maybe others I’ve forgotten.
When I was looking for those old paperbacks, I never thought much about Keene’s background or his beginnings as a writer. For all I knew, he’d started out as a novelist, and it never even occurred to me that he might have written stories for the pulps. After all, I never saw them anywhere.
Then one day I came across an old Avon paperback by Keene. It was called This Is Murder, Mr. Herbert, and I bought it without even looking inside, being sure that it was yet another novel. When I got home and opened it up, I discovered that it wasn’t a novel at all. Instead it was a collection of four stories from the detective pulps. Keene had been writing for years before he started doing paperback novels, and he’d specialized in the same kind of lean prose and fast-moving stories even then. I would have loved to read more of them, but at that time I was collecting paperback books, not pulp magazines, which were a little out of my price range.
Now, thanks to Ramble House, Keene’s pulp stories are all being brought back into print, and people will have a chance to see not only how Keene developed as a writer but how he applied the principles of pulp storytelling in his early work.
And just what are those principles? One of the best-known is explained in the old adage that says, “Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.” How about this one from “The Charlie McCarthy Murders”:
Hart Jackson returned to Chicago to kill Flip Evans on a Friday morning. He looked like a million dollars. His eyes were clear. His face had lost its night club pallor. His clothes, while outmoded, were expensive and well cut. The first thing he did when he got off the bus was buy a twenty-cent cigar. He paid for it with his last two dimes. Then he remembered the girl and looked around—but she was gone.
It’s hard to stop reading after an opening like that, all right. Here’s another one, this time the first three sentences from “Death March of the Dancing Dolls”:
The dead Chinese walked into Doc Egg’s gold mine on the corner of 44th and Broadway at exactly fifteen minutes of midnight July the 5th. No one paid much attention to him. No one knew he was dead.
If you’re like me, you’re already hooked. There are some other fine opening lines lying in wait for you at the beginnings of these stories, but you can find those for yourself.
After the reader gets beyond the first paragraph, the pulp writer’s job is to hold his attention. One way to do that is with memorable characters like the one mentioned above, Doc Egg, who appears in two stories in this volume. Doc is a pharmacist, and he owns his own drug store. He’s short and balding, but don’t let his appearance fool you. His profession was prizefighting until he won enough money to open his business, and he has a penchant for getting involved in murder.
Or how about Matt Mercer, the one-armed private-eye, married with kids, who keeps getting hit on the head and shot at? Not that getting hit on the head distinguishes him in the company of the other protagonists in these stories. It happens to all of them at one time or another.
Great beginnings and interesting characters are fine, but without a gripping plot they don’t mean much. Keene could certainly plot. I’m not saying that everything that happens is plausible, but the stories will certainly keep you turning the pages, from the dying message in “Doc Egg’s Graveyard Reunion” to elusive scraps of rice paper that everyone’s chasing in “So Sorry You Die Now.”
One thing you might not expect in Keene’s stories is humor, but it’s there in all of them, more in some than in others. Nowhere is it more evident than in “A Minor Matter of Murder,” in which Keene has a great time with playing around with some classic noir themes. You may figure out where this one is going before it gets there, but you’ll have some good laughs along the way.
But wait! There’s more! Dangerous dames. Gunplay. Romance. Savage beatings. Chases. Graveyards at night. Kidnappings. Ventriloquism. These stories have it all.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Read them and see. You’ll be glad you did.