Thursday, December 16, 2021

THE KID I KILLED LAST NIGHT by Day Keene (& David Laurence Wilson)

This is Day Keene’s book. It contains thirteen of his stories, all well told and rewarding. But the real star of the show is the Introduction, “The Many Births of Day Keene,” by David Laurence Wilson.

Where this Wilson guy gets his information, I don’t know. Does he have a time machine in his garage, using it to go back and spy on his subjects? Does he dig up corpses and use sorcery to make them answer questions? Is he an immortal, having palled around with everyone from Adam to Day Keene in person? Beats me. Guess all we can do is stand back and marvel at the fruit of his labors.

In this case, Wilson somehow knows what Keene (born Gunard Hjertstedt) was doing since he was a tyke, and if asked what Gunard had for breakfast on any given day, he could no doubt rattle off the menu. The focus of this piece (among several he’s done on this writer) is how Hjertstedt finally came to accept Keene as his pen name. The trail, Wilson tells us, leads as far back as 1922, when the eventual author was only eighteen, and acting in Shakespeare (and other) plays in Boston. He even knows what roles the kid played in some of those productions. The transition from Hjertstedt to Keene makes for a fascinating story, and I’ll let you discover the rest of it for yourself.

I like Day Keene a lot. In fact, I like him more than many of his more widely-acclaimed contemporaries—guys like Frederic Brown, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer. Those dudes all have their attractions, but to me, Keene’s voice is stronger and more genuine. It’s breezy, conversational and lyrical, employing just the right amount of slang and dialect. It makes his prose richer, and his characters more real.

This book leads off with Keene’s first known sale, a little ditty from 10-Story Book called “Ashes.” The story is only three pages long, but serves as a great introduction to the author’s talent and humor. The guy really knew how to set you up and slap you in the face with a clever ending. Those endings are not always happy, but almost invariably leave you with a smile.

The stories that follow feature a wide variety of protagonists. Some are on the right side of the law, some on the other, and some are just average folks caught up in extra-passionate circumstances. Several of his heroes (or anti-heroes) are recently discharged servicemen struggling with the return to civilian life. Some are cops struggling to resist that system that threatens to drag them into corruption. There are killers and would-be killers, victims and victimizers, cheaters and cheated-upon, and the seven deadly sins are on wild and crazy display.

And good as these tales are, they don’t really represent Keene at his best. For that, you’ll have to seek out his novels. But these stories are all entertaining, and offer a good picture of the artist developing his craft. We are indebted to David Wilson for ferreting them out and rescuing them from the slag heap of pulp history.

And, as I said, there’s that Introduction.


Anonymous said...

“I like Day Keene a lot. In fact, I like him more than many of his more widely-acclaimed contemporaries—guys like Frederic Brown, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer.”

Okay, okay. Better than Goodis, Rabe, Brewer and maybe Brown.
But better than Harry Whittington?

If you had to name a favorite Keene novel, what would it be?

John Hocking

boiledoverbooksn said...

John -- I'd say Joy House, the reconstructed version from Stark House. Good from the first to the last word. But on a desert island, with one paperback? I'm still thinking ...

David Laurence Wilson

Evan Lewis said...

Like the Wilson guy, I got a lot of joy from Joy House. After several Whittington's, though, I got no sense of style.