For a long time the only image I’d ever seen of Day Keene was a typical book-jacket photo. There isn’t a lot of biographical data available on Keene and I don’t know when or where the photo was made, but it has the look of a small-town studio run by a photographer who specialized in documenting weddings and young children for posterity. He might have scored big once every twelve months doing graduation portraits for the local high school’s yearbook.
These shots were marked by standard poses and proper lighting. They were technically flawless and utterly unimaginative.
One glance and you’d guess that Keene was a shoe salesman, employed by a shop on the main street of that presumed small town. After twenty years of service–or maybe thirty–Keene would have been promoted to assistant manager, a job which he would hold with pride until reaching retirement age. He was probably a faithful member of Kiwanis, a Mason, and possibly a deacon of the nearby Presbyterian Church.
Bet he drove a six-year-old Plymouth.
Thinking about this some more, he might have been a high school biology teacher rather than a shoe salesman. The kids in his class always giggled a lot when they came to the unit on sexual reproduction. He likely was a scoutmaster as well.
All of this on the basis of one book-jacket portrait.
In it we see a smallish man with thinning, slicked-down hair, a neatly-clipped moustache, and horn-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a white shirt, a really silly polka-dotted bow tie, and a dark jacket. Probably had that photograph taken on his lunch break from the shoe store. Or on Saturday when he didn’t have to teach.
In fact, he looked like a cross between H. T. Webster’s immortal comic strip character, Caspar Milquetoast, and the brilliant, prissy movie actor, Clifton Webb.
You’d never take him for the prolific author of some of the toughest, nastiest crime fiction of his generation.
And then–mirabile dictu!–I came across another photo of Keene. In it he’s at least a decade younger than he was in the previous photo. Hair was thicker. Moustache was bushier and less disciplined. No horn-rimmed glasses. And—heaven help us!—no ridiculous bow tie!
That was the Day Keene who wrote My Flesh is Sweet, The Big Kiss-Off, Bring Him Back Dead, Passage to Samoa, Home is the Sailor, and dozens of other tough crime novels, most of them flavored with more than a tincture of twisted sexuality.
Yeah! That was Day Keene.
Before going any farther, let’s talk about by-lines, especially that peculiar one, Day Keene. It piqued my curiosity when I was a teenager back in Harry Truman’s day, and I didn’t find out what lay behind it until I got involved in the mystery field myself, not very many years ago.
Biographical data on Day Keene is regrettably sparse. Such fine scholars and critics as Bill Pronzini, Kevin Burton Smith, Al Guthrie, and even the great Bill Crider provide only minimal information. For as prolific and visible an individual as Keene was professionally, he seems to have been remarkably elusive in his personal life.
At least one website asserts that he was born on March 28, 1904, probably in Chicago. His legal name was Gunnar Hjerstedt or maybe Gunard Hjertstedt. He broke into the pulp field with a short story, “Pure and Simple,” in Detective Fiction Weekly for October 31, 1931. He maintained a steady output of roughly one story a month for five months, all of them published in DFW. In Steve Lewis’s fine bibliography, there is then a gap until May, 1935, when our boy pops up in Clues Detective Stories with “Case of the Bearded Bride.”
Then another gap, until he reappeared in Ace G-Man Stories for September, 1940 with “It Could Happen Here!” by-lined Day Keene. If you’ve been following the Keene renaissance you will have seen several stories that he wrote under the name John Corbett between 1942 and 1950. And after that he never stopped running, turning out literally hundreds of criminous yarns for the crime pulps, with an occasional foray into general fiction mags like Short Stories, Adventure, Argosy, and slicks or semi-slicks like Adam, Esquire and Man’s Magazine. He even sold stories to Western Short Stories, Fifteen Western Tales, 10-Story Western, and Jungle Tales.
But what was he doing between May, 1935 and September, 1940? The answer—or at least a partial answer—is provided by golden age radio scholar Victor A. Berch, who discovered that Hjerstedt wrote at least eight dramatic scripts for a radio series called First Nighter. He wrote at least one episode for Behind the Camera Lines. He wrote scripts for the Little Orphan Annie radio serial, and may have penned as many as several hundred scripts for Kitty Keene, Incorporated, a radio series about a female private eye.
The story of how Gunnard Hjertstedt (or however we’re spelling it at the moment) was transformed into Day Keene has many variations. Here’s the consensus version:
Our boy was visiting the office of one of his pulp publishers, maybe to plead for an advance check. That kind of thing happened all the time. The office was almost certainly that of Popular Publications on 43rd Street in Manhattan. Throughout his career, Popular Pubs was Hjertstedt’s favorite outlet. For instance, of the nine stories in the present volume, five were first published in Detective Tales, three in Dime Mystery, and one in Popular Detective. All three magazines were issued by Popular Publications.
That company was headed by Harry Steeger. The top editor was Rogers Terrill, and in all likelihood the person Brother Hjertstedt was there to see was Terrill. I imagine their conversation went something like this:
Terrill: Gunnard, I really like your story “It Could Happen Here!” I’m going to use it in Ace G-Man Stories and I want to blurb it on the cover, but your by-line, you know, isn’t really very commercial. Half of our customers won’t be able to read it and the other half won’t be able to pronounce it. Please, buddy, give me a different by-line I can slug on the front of the book.
Hjertstedt: Uh, I dunno, Mr. Terrill, sir. Maybe—uh—do you have any suggestions?
Terrill: How about a family name? What was your mom’s maiden name, that’s usually a good one.
Hjertstedt: Keeney. Her name is Daisy Keeney.
Terrill: Hmm. Possibilities. Definite possibilities. But it needs work. How about cutting it a little? We certainly don’t want a name like Daisy on the cover of Ace G-Man Stories.
Hjertstedt: Okay. Let’s drop the last syllable of each word. That leaves us with Day Keene. What do you think?”
“Okay, I think that’s it. Now, how much do you need? How soon can you give me another story? I can’t just go writing advance checks to every writer who wanders in here with his hand out!”
And so it was. Or at least, that’s how it might have been. Gunnard also wrote as Lewis Dixon, William Richards, and Daniel White. All pretty generic by-lines. But Day Keene is the one he used for the greatest bulk of his work, and it’s the one by which he is remembered.
Unlike many of his pulp-writing colleagues who established popular series characters and returned to them frequently, Keene created few recurring characters. Doc Egg, the Times Square druggist who pops up in several of Keene’s New York stories, is an intriguing figure. It’s unfortunate that Keene didn’t make more use of Doc. And Keene brought back the Chicago private eye firm of McPherson, McCreedy and McCoy more than once, but these characters were never particularly vivid and the stories were carried by their not-especially-startling plots.
By the end of the 1940s the handwriting was on the wall for the pulp magazines, and while many of them survived well into the 1950s—and a few even into the early ’60s—most of the better pulpers headed for safe harbor elsewhere. Some, like Howard Browne, wound up in Hollywood writing for the movies or for that new medium called television. Others, including Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Alfred Bester and Otto Binder became comic book scripters either full- or part-time. But the greatest number skedaddled into the book biz, especially the burgeoning paperback field, where Keene eventually wrote something like 50 novels. Exact count is hard to pin down, as publishers came and went pell-mell, sometimes changing titles as they scrambled to survive.
The great majority of Keene’s novels were criminous in content, generally set in the more-or-less realistic contemporary world of the 1950s and early ’60s. However, he did experiment with other genres.
World Without Women (1960), co-authored with Leonard Pruyn, was Keene’s sole foray into science fiction. In this novel, a plague wipes out most of the women in the world and leaves most of the few survivors sterile. Only a few fertile women remain, and hope for the survival of the human species depends on them. The novel focuses on the husband of one of these surviving fertile females. Think half of Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance (1951) flavored with a tincture of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956).
Seed of Doubt (1961) is set in a wealthy Florida town. As Keene’s plot evolves, a leading male citizen proves to be sterile and his wife conceives through artificial insemination. Why this development should be regarded as a shameful secret and lead to a series of melodramatic and violent acts, is better left unexplored at this late date.
Chautauqua (1961) was co-written with Dwight Babcock, the latter writing as Dwight Vincent. In 1969 this became an Elvis Presley vehicle, and I think I need say no more about it than that.
Guns Along the Brazos (1967), a Western set in northern Mexico and Texas, concerns a onetime rancher and former Confederate army doctor who emigrates to Mexico after the Civil War. Upon returning to Texas to reclaim his ranch he finds that his wife and their ranch foreman have been plotting to betray him.
But let’s get back to Day Keene’s mainstay, the novel of crime and suspense. Typically, these books are not detective stories or even mysteries as we commonly think of such things. A Keene protagonist is most often a well-intentioned twenty- or thirtyish male who falls under the spell of a sexually dynamic woman of devious motives. Devious to the reader, that is. Keene’s hero is so smitten that he follows his new sweetie-pie into trouble that keeps getting deeper and nastier by the page.
A favorite device is to have the mob commit a heinous crime, then frame Keene’s protagonist for the dirty deed. Keene’s hero tries to determine who really committed the crime and hang the label of guilt upon the real criminal. That’s the only way he can clear himself. Of course the mob don’t want the crime to be solved, and they go after our hero.
At the same time, the cops (variously corrupt, inept, and brutal) are also chasing him. At various times in the book he’ll be caught by either the police or the mob and beaten within an inch of his life, only to escape and resume his seemingly hopeless search. All of this action—and tension—is subjected to occasional brief intermissions during which he gets to practice belly-to-belly gymnastics with one or another lubricious young lady.
Keene could occasionally pull a switch on the reader. An example of this was Who has Wilma Lathrop? (1955) a convoluted story of treachery, double-dealing, suspense, and—for once in a Keene opus—some major surprises. It’s one of his better efforts.
Trying to pick the best of Keene’s many novels is a daunting task, but certainly a leading candidate would be Death House Doll (1953). In this book Sergeant Mike Duval, a veteran of both World War Two and Korea, returns to the US on a mission. His brother had been killed in action, and Duval is to visit his deceased sibling’s widow. Mike is still in the army, and he has a leave of limited duration.
Problem is, the woman in the case has been convicted of murder and faces electrocution within a matter of days. Duval gets to see her, courtesy of an understanding warden who appreciates Duval’s military service. Mike meets the widowed Mona Duval and becomes convinced that she is innocent of the crime for which she is to be executed.
He leaves the prison determined to prove Mona’s innocence despite her refusal to cooperate. Before long Mike is being chased by the mob (they want Mona to take the rap), the military police (he’s overstayed his leave and is technically AWOL), and the regular cops (okay, so he did beat up a few guys).
The result is a madcap hunt-and-chase novel. Keene somehow manages to keep things under control (sort of) and to tie up a spaghetti-bowl full of loose ends in a mere 140 Ace Double pages. The book is absolutely stunning, unforgettable, Day Keene at his very best.
I should also mention that he created only one continuing character in his novels. This was Johnny Aloha, an LA-based Irish-Hawaiian private eye. Aloha appeared in Dead in Bed (1959) and Payola (1960). There’s a light, tongue-in-cheek feel to these two books. I have a feeling that Keene had encountered the great Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott capers, which were immensely popular at the time. Keene decided to try his hand at something similar. He substituted Aloha’s occasional usage of Hawaiian cultural references for Shell Scott’s fondness for tropical fish as a character tag or “funny hat.” Otherwise, they’re just about interchangeable. Big, tough, ex-military, cynical, sexy.
Apparently Keene found the genre uncongenial, as he dropped Aloha after just two books.
Having moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida, where several of his later books are set, Keene joined a congenial group of hardboiled writers who had settled in the Tampa Bay area. To all evidence (of which there is, alas, far too little) he enjoyed the tropical lifestyle and the company of his colleagues. Somewhere along the way he had married and fathered a son. His last new book, Acapulco G.P.O., was published in 1967. He died in Los Angeles on January 9, 1969.
As for the stories in the present collection, I am indebted to our series editor, John Pelan, who tracked down the pulp magazines in which they originally appeared, and assembled them. All else aside, John has made my job incalculably easier by finding the stories in this collection (like many others!). All I’ve had to do is sit down and enjoy them. And believe me, Day Keene understood the first commandment of the fiction writer: Give the Readers Something they’ll Enjoy!
The sign over every successful pulp editor’s door read, Fiction is a Medium of Entertainment. Anything else, if there had to be anything else, was secondary. If you want to sell your readers on your philosophy, if you want to explain to them your brilliant insight into the human condition, if you want them to understand a turning point of history, if you want to teach them something about the wonders of chemistry, physics and astronomy...
...all of those goals are okay, provided you show the customers a good time.
The stories in the present volume were published over the period a decade, from 1941 to 1951. During this time the pulps had weathered a downturn during the Second World War, due to the rationing of paper supplies. Once the war had ended they came roaring back to life. Despite the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the continued to prosper for a while, only to die a lingering death in the 1950s and ’60s.
Keene’s interests carried his protagonists from Chicago to New York, Florida, and California. The stories are driven, for the most part, by greed. Insurance scams and missing heirs abound. Treacherous, sexually predatory women lurk at every corner. From time to time Keene injects some sly humor, and in at least one instance there’s an outrageous lift from a famous Sherlock Holmes story. Or maybe that was homage.
In reading several dozen of Keene’s hundreds of stories, I’ve been deeply impressed by the growth in their quality, from his earliest “Hjertstedt” stories of the 1930s to the many productions of his mature years. The fact is—and let’s be brutally honest about this!—Keene’s earliest stories are pretty weak. The ideas are slight, e.g., a dart gun hidden in a camera, a crooked bartender who feeds his customers mickey finns and rolls them for their cash. The characters are very thinly established, e.g., red hair, tall and massive or short and energetic, given to slang or committed to “proper” English speech. The pacing is jerky and there are technical flaws in the prose that any good high school composition teacher would have red-lined, e.g., changes in narrative viewpoint whenever convenient for the author.
In fact, it’s a wonder that Hjertstedt sold those earliest stories at all. I’ve got a theory which I’ll share with you. The pulp magazine field was huge in the 1920s. In the ’30s, with the Depression growing ever deeper, there was some shrinkage in the field but the volume of production remained high. Prices, however, dropped. Cover price of many pulps slid from 25¢ down to 20¢, 15¢, 10¢, and in a few cases even to 5¢. Payments to authors dropped from several cents per word to a penny or even a fraction of a cent. Writers’ magazines of the era contained letters from pulp authors complaining that publishers were retitling and reissuing their earlier works while making no payments to them at all.
And yet the hungry presses kept churning out hundreds of titles per month. Titles came and went literally by the hundreds. Of all the pulp categories—westerns, science fiction, horror, love stories, sports stories, war stories and so on—mystery and detective magazines were the most popular and consequently the most numerous.
If an average pulp contained ten stories, that meant that the demand for fiction ran to literally thousands of stories per month. In this market, as science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein theorized a decade later, virtually any story with the faintest glimmer of merit could find a home somewhere, in some periodical, providing only that the author keep it circulating in the face of form rejection slips.
That, at least, is how I believe Gunnard Hjertstedt got his start. Now, more than three quarters of a century later, we can be grateful that he didn’t give up. As he learned his craft he learned to create characters with depth and pathos and plots with subtlety and complexity. And he honed his once clunky and graceless prose into a keen-edged instrument to be envied by generations of successors.
It’s also my personal belief that Keene’s experience writing radio scripts contributed to the development of his talent. Audio drama has the same major ingredients as prose fiction—character, plot, setting—but it also has its own set of requirements. Terseness and clarity are paramount among them. The reader of a novel or a magazine story can linger over a convoluted sentence; the listener cannot. And timing is vital in radio drama. The novelist can go on for another ten pages or another hundred if that will make for a better book. The radio writer must wrap in time for the proverbial message from his sponsor.
Above all, Day Keene understood that principle, that principle that whatever other purposes to which it could be put, fiction always was and still remains a medium of entertainment. For a demonstration of how well he understood it, simply turn the page and start reading the stories in this book.
Richard A. Lupoff