SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL
One of the back cover blurbs of the new Stark House omnibus calls this novel “top-notch pulp fiction.” I agree, but calling it pulp fiction seems to imply it's somehow inferior to modern mystery fiction. Which it isn’t. In fact, if this story were published today, I could see it getting serious consideration from award committees.
This novel has everything I look for in a mystery: Tight, no nonsense prose. Terse, vivid dialogue. A plot that grips you on page one and keeps squeezing all the way to the finish. And a protagonist unlike any I’ve met before.
Les Ferron is a man with a plan. He’s going to murder his crooked boss, thereby getting himself out from under another murder rap, assume a well-laid identity as a bible salesman, and marry the sexy virginal daughter of a well-to-do country farmer. And that’s just the beginning. Once he tires of the good girl, he’ll make off with the old man’s money and retire to South America, abandoning the bad girl who truly loves him.
Somehow, no matter how crass and unpleasant Ferron behaves, he gets the reader on his side. I quickly found myself rooting for this bastard to succeed.
I know this sounds pretty pulpy, but it’s handled with style and finesse, and breaks the pulp mold when Ferron’s character begins to grow. He finds himself changing, mentally, physically and emotionally into his new straight-arrow persona, and actually has thoughts of redemption.
Pulp or fiction? I guess it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a hell of a good read.
The narrator/hero of this one is a slightly less-than-average joe named Jim Charters, an unappreciated gopher for a sleazy but successful attorney. His meager salary is barely enough to keep his wife fed and sheltered, and when he loses even that—getting fired on his birthday—he throws a wind-ding, carousing up and down the Florida coast.
Next morning he wakes up in a strange motel with a babe in his bed, ten one-thousand dollar bills in an envelope, and vague memories of promising to do something to earn them.
What follows is a compelling and believable mystery as Charters tries to figure what transpired during his all-night debauch, and strives to get out from under it. Which just makes matters worse, because he soon finds himself suspected of a double murder and being chased by the mob.
A bonus for the reader is the knowledge (supplied by David Lawrence Wilson’s Stark House Introduction) that the Florida Sunshine Coast locale is pretty much Keene’s backyard, the scene he shared with such friends and neighbors Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and Talmadge Powell.
First published by Avon in 1952, Wake Up to Murder, while less riveting than Sleep With the Devil, is a fine tale and well worth your reading time.
Before this story begins, Mark Harris was a high-profile L.A. criminal attorney who finally crossed the line into criminal activity himself. When his wife threatened to expose him, he killed her. Weeks later he’s on the run, and on the bum, singing for his supper in a Chicago rescue mission.
Then in walks the mission’s benefactor--blonde, rich, and enticing--and his life takes a whole new direction, one he’s sure will lead him straight to hell.
When that benefactor, a young widow named May, hires him as a chauffeur—and seemingly as a boy toy, a position offering him food, shelter, sex and safety from the law, I expected him to rejoice. Instead, he’s wracked with guilt—not for being a murderer, but for acting like a heel or a pimp. The rest of the story is mostly about guilt, indignation and fear of discovery by his dead wife’s shady brother. And he pretty much lost me. I can identify with a unrepentant killer or just about any other kind of low-life, but I can’t abide a weenie.
A major character in this novel (and one I found more engaging than Harris himself) is May’s house, a musty old place that’s been boarded up for ten years. It seems to speak to him, fueling his guilt and paranoia. The story eventually comes to a boil in a snap ending worthy of EC’s Shock SuspenStories, The ending is satisfying, but it does take a long time getting there.
What makes Joy House really interesting is the new Introduction by David Lawrence Wilson, providing a detailed history and analysis of its many incarnations, from short story in Detective Tales, to novel to film, finally resulting in the version used for this book—which restores never-before-printed scenes from Keene’s novel manuscript.
SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL / WAKE UP TO MURDER / JOY HOUSE was officially published just today by Stark House Press, and is available for order from all the usual suspects.