Sunday, March 7, 2021

Day Keene Essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, I have a piece on Day Keene focused on his working-class upbringing, early years as an itinerant actor, and his radio career, and how these experiences influenced and are reflected in his later pulp stories and paperback novels. 

Struggle is rampant in Keene’s world, and nothing ever comes easy. “It burns me up when I think of it. I get all sick inside,” admits a police lieutenant in Wake Up to Murder, lamenting about how he’s only an $80-per-week cop raising a family instead of the rich man he thought he’d be. “I guess all we little men of the world have the same problem. We’re all riding a blind horse. And despite our best efforts, most of the time it plods on where it will. And all we really can do is hang on and keep our heads.” This working-class ethos stems from Keene’s own upbringing and his pre-pulp careers as an itinerant actor in the 1920s, specializing in vaudeville and stock theater, and as a radio writer in the 1930s.

The full essay, "Becoming Day Keene: The Pre-Pulp Career of Gunard Hjertstedt," is available here.

I am deeply grateful to the LARB for publishing this piece, and my fabulous editor Boris Dralyuk for his patience, support, and enthusiasm. 

"P.J." (1968)

Kudos to Kino Lorber Studio Classics for releasing P.J., a missing piece of the private eye movie puzzle that had never before been on home video. Originally released in 1968, it’s a fascinating look at a genre—and an industry—on the brink of change. P.J. is poised precariously between two eras, it’s like a last-call for late-era Golden Age Hollywood decadence that also looks ahead to ‘70s ambivalence. P.J. recalls more the shaggy dog detectives of the following decade, like in Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in Hickey & Boggs (1972) or Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973), than a classical model like Humphrey Bogart. 

In P.J., George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) stars as the titular character, a down-on-his-luck private detective who has been reduced to framing a wife by posing as her lover so her husband can catch them in a motel room and have evidence for divorce; the husband even throws in an extra $50 so he can beat up P.J. to make it look more convincing. Later, P.J.’s loyal bartender gives him a tip on a bodyguard job for Maureen Preble (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress to business tycoon William Orbison (Raymond Burr). From the pre-credit sequence, we know that Orbison has hired an assassin, though it’s not clear who he hired—or who he wants killed. Multiple attempts have been made on Maureen’s life, and P.J. is determined to keep her alive at any cost. As expected, the case is more complicated than P.J. or the audience can imagine. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Noir February at The Kulturecast

Chris Stachiw, host of The Kulturecast podcast, was kind enough to invite me to program a month of episodes based around noir movies. I was greatly honored by the invitation, and lost track of how many movies and themes I considered. In the end, I went with my gut and chose 5 favorite noir films that I think are under-seen and under-appreciated. I looked at it as an opportunity to help spread the word about these movies. Here's a list of the films with a schedule of speakers:

1) The Sound of Fury (1950) - Chris with Trevor Gumbel

The Sound of Fury, also known as Try and Get Me, was directed by Cy Enfield before he was blacklisted and forced to relocate to England to continue working. This movie epitomizes post-WWII noir for me. Frank Loveloy is a vet who is down and out. Unable to find a job, he runs into sharp dresser Lloyd Bridges who offers him an easy job—just drive a car. Soon, Lovejoy is a getaway driver, and things go south from there. What really hits me about the movie is the ending—utter bleakness. No redemption, no justice, just a rioting mob and widespread violence. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

"The Eagle and the Hawk" (1933)

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) is a Pre-Code anti-war film from Paramount that focuses on the rivalry between two RAF soldiers stationed in France during World War I, Jerry Young (Fredric March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant). Crocker is acknowledged as the best gunner in the squad, but he aspires to be a pilot. Young, however, advises the captain the Crocker isn't good enough to be a pilot. Their conflict escalates when Crocker tries to gun down German observers that parachuting out of a burning plane, which Young sees as savage and immoral and which Crocker views as justified by the nature of war. Young's humanist philosophy increases as the death toll rises and he questions the very nature of valor, bravery, and heroism. An unsung classic, The Eagle and the Hawk deserves to be mentioned alongside other anti-war films of the time like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Kino Lorber Studio Classics have recently resurrected the film with a pristine and beautiful Blu-ray presentation.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"The Sign of the Cross" (1932)

If you can't see The Sign of the Cross (1932) on the big screen, the next best thing is the new Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, in which every lavish detail of Cecil B. DeMille's super-production is shimming in high-def detail. High visual quality is especially important for a director like DeMille who poured every dollar into his shots. If the audience couldn't see it, then it wasn't big enough for DeMille, a director who never did anything small. Born from and for the big screen, he sought to make his movies bigger than anything ever done before. Never one for subtlety, he envisioned spectacles and protagonists larger than the lives and worlds of the spectators in the theater. The Sign of the Cross is perfectly emblematic of DeMille's vision: the drama might be overwrought to the point of corn, but the production design and depictions of Roman debauchery and decadence are unarguably incredible.

Friday, November 13, 2020

"Picture Mommy Dead" (1966)

Kino Lorber Studio Classics's new Blu-ray of Picture Mommy Dead (1966) is a wonderful tribute to its producer and director, the legendary independent filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday on September 24th, and whose career spanned over six decades. Dubbed "Mr. B.I.G." by Forrest J. Ackerman both for his initials and his frequent use of XL-sized monsters, Gordon made his mark with a series of low-budget sci-fi pictures including The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Gordon's career continued into the 70s including Food of the Gods (1976), and his most recent film was Secrets of a Psychopath (2015).  Picture Mommy Dead features no larger-than-life monsters (though it does take place in a large mansion), however the film displays the director's flair for economical thrills and a cheap but effective sense of style.

Friday, November 6, 2020

"If the Coffin Fits" by Day Keene (1952) - FFB

If the Coffin Fits (1952) was Keene's eighth novel since his debut, Framed in Guilt, was published three years earlier in 1949. The title is borrowed from a pulp story he wrote for Dime Mystery (March 1945), but the stories have nothing in common (the original yarn is about a writer who debunks occult phenomena). The protagonist of this novel is another throwback to his pulp days, private eye Tom Doyle, who appeared in numerous yarns in the 1940s; this is Doyle's only outing in a novel. Here, Doyle gets caught up in a war for political control of a corrupt Nevada gambling town.

Keene's choice of reviving Doyle during his paperback period is really interesting, as Keene's novels tended to focus on average joes who, through extraordinary circumstances, have to prove that they or their spouse is innocent of murder. Considering the popularity of private eyes in paperback fiction at the time, perhaps Keene was hoping a publisher would latch onto the character for a series. Doyle's description as a World War II vet with premature white hair and blue eyes, in fact, reminds of another popular series private eye of the time: Richard Prather's Shell Scott. Scott's white hair and blue eyes graced the cover of scores of Gold Medal paperbacks in the 1950s (and beyond). The similarities stop there, however, as Keene's prose is decidedly less animated than Prather's.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4" (2013) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4 was edited and introduced by scholar David Laurence Wilson. The selection reflects the depth and comprehensiveness of his research, comprising Keene's earliest stories under his real name, Gunard Hjertstedt, as well as several from the 1940s under the pen name "John Corbett." None of these tales were the sorts of novelettes that would get their titles printed in large, sweeping, bold red text on the front covers of magazines. Instead, these stories represent two different stages of Keene's career as a writer. The Hjertstedt stories are when he was still developing a voice, written in the 1930s while he was still mainly producing radio dramas for broadcast. The Corbett stories, on the other hand, were pseudonymous works meant to fill out the pages of issues where a story under his real name was given more prominence. It's a fascinating combination that focuses on the more obscured and less visible aspects of Keene's output, but that sort of attention to detail is what I value and appreciate from Wilson.

Monday, November 2, 2020

"Kings of Midnight" by Wallace Stroby (2012)

Kings of Midnight (2012) kicks off with a heist destined for the Hall of Fame. The setup may be simple—knocking over an ATM with a tractor, followed by a fast getaway into the woods—but the scene's power lies in Wallace Stroby's uncannily exact imagery, precise language, and narrative credibility. Stroby's depiction of heists is so believable you almost wonder if writing is just a sideline for him. The scene recalls those meticulously choreographed centerpieces from films like Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) and Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road (1957), in which minute details of movement are amplified to anxiety-inducing extremes. So much tension, but so little happening. Economy of language has been a key element of crime fiction since the days of Dashiell Hammett, but Stroby makes it feels fresh and vital again. He doesn't rely on hardboiled clichés or tough guy lingo. Kings of Midnight is, in large part, a quiet book when it comes to dialogue. The attitude is all in the action—and here, actions speaks louder than words.

Friday, October 30, 2020

"Mrs. Homicide" by Day Keene (1953) (FFB)

Day Keene's books for Gold Medal and Lion are some of his most ambitious offerings—larger in scope, atmosphere, setting, plot, as well as experiments and deviations from his style. His books for Ace and Graphic were more blunt, straightforward, a little more crude, less polished, sometimes more graphic in their depictions of sex and violence. They're more repetitive, formulaic, recycled. In this sense, the Ace and Graphic books are somewhat more representative of Keene. His 1953 Ace paperback original, Mrs. Homicide, is a classic example of the author's style.

Connie Stone, wife of New York City Cop Herman Stone, wakes up naked in bed next to a dead man she claims to have never seen before. Witnesses, however, say they have seen her with the man, a blackmailer named Lyle Cary, at his apartment, as well as in bars around the city. Some of Herman's co-workers even saw them together. They tell him that all women are alike, and that he should get drunk, have a weekend fling, and forget about his wife. He tries that—but he wants to believe her, so he starts asking questions around town, from Greenwich Village to 52nd Street's Swing Alley. Just when he thinks he has found the answer, someone saps him on the head, and he wakes up next to a corpse. Just like his wife did. Now the cops are after him, and he knows that Connie was framed, but in order to prove her innocence he'll first have to prove his own.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

"Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's Death March of the Dancing Dolls and Other Stories, Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #3 (2010) starts off with an introduction by the late Bill Crider, a superb writer and generous soul whose enthusiasm for old pulps and paperback novels was as infectious as it was enlightening. For me, this introduction had extra special meaning because Crider's blog posts were some of the earliest writings that I encountered about Keene. Reading his words brought a smile to my face, and recalled memories of reading about Keene on his fabulous blog.

Among the selections here are two stories with Keene's series character Doc Egg, a former pugilist who has hung up his gloves in order to open a Times Square pharmacy. From his counter at the Crossroads of the World, Doc crosses paths with plenty of characters, and invariably plenty of mysteries cross his path that he is compelled to solve, either to save his own hide or to help the NYPD. Keene describes Doc Egg as "a bright-eyed, bald little man in his late thirties with the suspicion of a paunch . . . reputedly worth a million dollars." An amiable fellow to his friends, always willing to loan a buck when he can, "he never forgot a favor or forgave a slight. If he couldn't whip a bully with his fists, e used whatever was handy. He and Lieutenant Dan Carter of the Times Square Homicide Detail had been friends since they had been boys." Not everyone on the police force likes Doc, however, and he usually has to outwit an officer who is trying to pin the crime on him.

Friday, October 23, 2020

"Dead Man's Tide" by Day Keene (1953) - FFB

Day Keene's It's a Sin to Kill was one of the first books I reviewed here on Pulp Sereade, my fourth ever post. I still remember finding the 1958 Avon paperback in a cardboard box underneath the counter at Spoonbill and Sugartown bookstore in Brooklyn. 12 years later, I finally have a true first edition of the book under its original title, Dead Man's Tide, published by Graphic under the pseudonym "William Richards." Revisiting the book, I found it to be even better than I remembered.

Keene knew how to hook a reader fast by getting right to the story, and Dead Man's Tide is perhaps the fastest of them all. First sentence and he's already describing a nude corpse floating through the Gulf of Mexico, passing by schools of porpoises, then landing on a sand bar where crabs gather around it. It's macabre, grotesque, strangely erotic, and even more strangely serene. It's an elegantly written passage, among the most evocative and vivid that Keene ever penned. Keene then takes readers to a familiar set up: a man wakes up to murder and must go on the run in order to prove himself innocent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"We Are the Dead: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. 2" (2010) - Short Story Wednesday

We Are the Dead is Ramble House's second volume of Day Keene's pulp fiction. This volume is particularly special because of its introduction by the late Ed Gorman, one of my favorite novelists. Ed was also an incredible critic and historian, and he had the remarkable ability to discuss literature in a way that was profound and insightful without being overly complicated. I have re-read his intro three or four times, and it has that particular cadence that all of his writing has, an ineffable and invisible quality but which is always present. It's a voice that is unmistakably his own. I would have treasured this volume for his intro alone, but the stories are quite remarkable too, and the combination of them makes this an impressive volume all around.

Three of Keene's series characters appear here. The former pugilist-turned-pharmacist Doc Egg is represented by "We Are the Dead" and "If the Coffin Fits," which are great representations of the Dime Mystery-style of pulp story that Keene excelled in writing. What begin as a supernatural ghost stories are eventually revealed to be not supernatural at all. The design appealed to some of Keene's best qualities as a writer, a knack for strong, vivid opening scenes, as well as his gift for nightmarish logic and endurance tests for his characters. Private eye Matt Mercer appears in "Thirteen Must Die!" and police officer Herman "The Great" Stone appears in "The Corpse They Couldn't Kill."

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Rattlesnake Rodeo" by Nick Kolakowski (2020)

Nick Kolakowski's Rattlesnake Rodeo (2020) kick-starts like the recoil of a shotgun, picking up immediately after the ending of Boise Longpig Hunting Club. Bounty hunter Jake Halligan, his ex- and future-wife Janine, and his dark-web arms-dealer sister Frankie, are on the run. When we last saw them in the previous book, they had been abducted by a group of rich hunters and managed to escape, leaving behind them an abandoned town in flames and a trail of dead bodies, many of whom were influential politicians and businessmen. It was only a matter of time before someone—either the police or an associate of the deceased—would find them, and neither way would end well for our protagonists.

"We were dead. Although I didn’t want to say it out loud, I knew that our life expectancy had almost certainly dropped to zero, no matter what we did or where we went. When you carbonize a group of millionaires, politicians, and millionaire-politicians, the law never stops hunting you, and they make sure you’ll never have the chance to say something embarrassing at trial."

Monday, October 19, 2020

Razorback by Peter Brennan (1981)

Chris Stachiw was kind enough to invite me to join him and screenwriter/producer Richard Hatem on The Kulturecast to discuss the 1984 Australian film Razorback. In preparation for the podcast, I decided to read the source material. The decision was totally mine, so I have no one to blame but myself. And while I can't say I enjoyed the book, I had a great time discussing the movie and book with Chris and Richard, so many thanks to them for a wonderful conversation. Hope to talk movie with them again soon!

Razorback (1981) is the second novel by Peter Brennan, who first novel was a tennis thriller called Sudden Death (1978). While the movie is a Jaws—esque story of a vicious animal terrorizing a community, the book is a beast of a different sort—a giant 378-page bloated mess.

The novel begins with a promising introduction about a kangaroo and her baby taking its first steps, a pregnant ewe, and a monstrous wild boar who has been driven to cannibalism by drought and lack of food. Unfortunately, after the promising introduction of the titular killer boar, the novel derails itself almost immediately. What begins as an eco thriller-horror novel dissolves into a missing persons-smuggling soap opera with too many competing story lines, too many uninteresting characters, and not enough wild boar action.

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