Day Keene


Introduction by Ed Gorman

   In recent years there have been a number of pieces written about Day Keene and his writing. I’ve found most of them to be helpful in understanding his background as well as his stories and novels.

The one element missing in all them, though, was the influence his years as a radio scriptwriter had on his pulp work. Radio was able to take the same kind of liberties with time that film does. And radio, dark and atmospheric as the mystery shows were, was usually about pace. I recently spent a few nights listening to some CDs of Johnny Dollar, The Whistler, and Nero Wolfe. In addition to the familiar melodrama and catchy dialogue, there was the quick, sculpted structure of the scenes and the quick cuts from scene to scene.

Historian Victor A. Birch turned up the names of some of those scripts written for the prominent radio show “First Nighter.” These were written under Keene’s real name Gunard Hjerstedt.

 “Little Lost Lady,”  aired Feb 8, 1935.

“John Brown, Gentleman,” aired Feb 22, 1935.

“The Eternal Light,” aired May 10, 1935.

“Mountain Music,” aired March 20, 1936.

“Dear Aunt Lulu,” aired April 10, 1936.

“Preliminary Girl,” aired Oct 23, 1936.

“Star of Peace,” aired Dec 25, 1936.

“Last Curtain,” aired Jan 22, 1937.     


Involved with shows this popular, Keene was doing well for himself. But despite this success he wanted to write short stories. And what stories they were. And of many different types, as these Keene volumes demonstrate. And just as radio was a bridge to short fiction, short fiction proved to be a bridge to the paperbacks that would make his name one of the dominant ones in the new paperback original market.

Novels afforded Keene the room to not only extend his quick-take radio and short story scenes but, especially in his Gold Medal novels, the opportunity to make some of his crusty comments on modern civilization. One thing I’ve always liked about Keene was his eye for the sociology of his settings and his people.  His books tended to be set in Florida or Chicago and he made sure you understood what it was like to live there.

He also wanted to tell you about the people you’d meet there, up and down the social ladder.  One of my favorite Keene books, Joy House, has the feel of George Orwell’s Down and Out In Paris and London, particularly in the sequences in the soup kitchens. He nails the sad ridiculous process of attending soup kitchen temperance meetings in order to get free meals—and sneaking whiskey into the meetings so that you’re just about plastered by the end of all the do-good talk. And Sleep With The Devil, partly set in a Mennonite-like commune, takes us into a world few of us will ever see. His snapshots of it are striking and difficult to forget.

There was less of the sociology in the short stories and novelettes because there wasn’t room for them. But Keene was often able to give you vivid impression of the settings and the people anyway. And again, the pacing was as close to radio pacing as prose can get. Keene wasn’t the only writer to push his narratives this hard, of course. This was the preferred method of most pulp stories. Action and pace were required no matter what type of pulp story you were writing.

In this collection you’ll see Day Keene doing some mighty fine pulp storytelling. He hewed to the belief that characterization (which he would refine in later years) and plenty of plot razzle dazzle was what the folks paid their dimes for and he by God was going to give it to them.

But enough jabber. You need to get right to the stories. I’ll just say one thing: “Corpses Come in Pairs” has one of the  knock-out storylines of all  time. I’ve read it three times now and the sheer cunning of the storyline still keeps it fresh.


Ed Gorman