Day Keene in the Detective Pulps
Introduction by John Pelan
The 1950’s are generally thought of as the golden age of the noir or hardboiled novels. Publishers such as Lion Library and Gold Medal flooded the shelves with action-packed and suspenseful novels by the likes of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer, Harry Whittington and others. Another name that stood out from the crowd due to the exceptional quality of his work and the sheer volume of novelettes and short stories he turned out was Day Keene. However, like most of his contemporaries, Day Keene went from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman in the preceding decade, where seldom a month went by without a Day Keene novelette or short story featuring somewhere in the myriad detective and general fiction magazines being published.
Keene made his debut under his real name of Gunard Hjerstedt in 1931 with “Pure and Simple” in Detective Fiction Weekly following up with a handful of detective tales and a couple of western yarns in West during 1932. After the appearance of “Case of the Bearded Bride” in Clues Detective Stories in May, 1935 Gunard Hjerstedt seemingly disappeared, perhaps one of the many, many writers frustrated with the low pay of the pulps.
What actually happened was far more interesting. Hjerstedt moved into radio regularly scripting shows for The First Nighter and Kitty Keene, Inc.; the former an anthology series and the latter a soap-opera about a female detective who runs her own agency. Hjerstedt also worked on the popular Little Orphan Annie and produced scripts for at least a couple of other shows including Behind the Camera Lines. Old radio is not exactly my forte, so it’s quite possible that he has additional script-writing credits yet to be unearthed.
What we do know for certain is that once WWII broke out, he returned to the pulps only to be told that a Teutonic-sounding name was not ever going to get cover billing. As related by Talmage Powell in an interview conducted by Al Tonik in Pulp Vault #5: “When Day began writing for the magazines, he went up to the office of the editor who told him: “This name is absolutely impossible. I would like to cover-mention this story, but I am not going to put that name on the cover of the magazine. Why don’t you pick out a good pen name to work under?” On the spur of the moment, Day remembered that his mother's maiden name was Daisy Keeney. Day thought to himself, “If I can't use my father’s name, I will use my mother’s.” He contracted her name to Day Keene. That became his legal name.” Many thanks for this information to Bill Crider, who has an excellent webpage discussing Day Keene and many of the other great crime writers who worked for Gold Medal in the 1950s and 1960s.
The writer that emerged in 1940 was different in manner as well as name. Almost as if the new name had reinvigorated him, the man now known as Day Keene launched into a frenzy of production that would not only get him cover billing, but would make him a household name among aficionados of the detective story. For the next dozen years Keene would seemingly have a story a month appearing somewhere. His mainstay was Popular Publications where he featured frequently in Dime Mystery and Detective Tales. Keene also branched out into some of their other publications such as Ace G-Men, Short Stories, Strange Detective, and even one appearance in the venerable Weird Tales.
When the pulp magazines began to fade away at the end of the 1940’s, they were replaced by the digest magazines and paperback houses. Some of these paperback publishers such as Gold Medal, Lion, and Graphic picked up right where Detective Tales and Dime Mystery had left off and pulpsters like Keene, Bruno Fischer, and John D. MacDonald made the transition without missing a beat. By my count (and again, the bibliography is a work in progress), there are nearly fifty novels written by Keene between 1949 and 1970. With the viability of the paperback market Keene’s short fiction slowed to a trickle after 1951. He did author a handful of stories up until his final appearance in the detective magazines in 1964 with a tale fittingly titled “For Old Crimes Sake”.
This is the initial volume in what proposes to be the longest series devoted to a single mystery author since Dennis McMillan collected the bulk of Fredric Brown’s mystery stories starting over twenty years ago and running to nineteen volumes. As Mr. Keene specialized in the novelette and our as-yet-incomplete bibliography numbers nearly one hundred tales, it’s to be expected that this series will run to at least ten volumes.
Our intent is to produce affordable hardcovers along with a less expensive trade paperback edition. There will also be a signed, limited edition of each volume featuring guest introducers whenever possible. Rather than present stories in chronological order, I have endeavored to make each book a representative sampler of Keene’s work. Thus, you will see series characters such as Doc Egg appearing throughout the series rather than collected in one place. I feel this approach gives the reader more of a sense of variety, as was of course the case when these tales originally appeared in the magazines.
This initial volume opens with one of the last “weird menace” tales to feature in Dime Mystery, wherein the formula of implied supernatural forces is gradually revealed to have a rational explanation. This story is particularly noteworthy in that it inspired the lead guitar player of the San Francisco-based band The Warlocks to change the band’s name to one which is much more familiar today . . . The Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia mentioned in an interview that he took the name from “an old pulp magazine”. However, the interviewer neglected to ask him whether or not he read the story, and if so, whether or not he enjoyed it.
It’s my hope that you enjoy not only “The League of the Grateful Dead” but also the half-dozen novelettes which accompany it . . .