"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.

The plot of If the Coffin Fits is certainly more routine than Keene's typical work from this period, hitting all the expected beats and twists one would expect from a 50s detective novel; however, it still exhibits Keene's commitment to action-oriented puzzle plots and pedal-to-the-metal pacing.

In If the Coffin Fits, Chicago private eye Tom Doyle is visited by an old army buddy, Tiny Anderson, who now runs a successful casino in Central City, Nevada. Anderson offers Doyle $5000 to fly to Central City, wait in front of a public monument at midnight, and get into a car to hear a proposal. If he doesn't like what he hears, he can walk away. For that kind of money, and a trusted friend, Doyle takes the case. But from the moment he lands in Central City, he knows there is more to the case than he was told. Local goons are waiting at the airport to persuade him—with their fists—to turn around. Doyle seems to have found himself caught in a grab for political control of the town, between one party who wants to reform and clean it up and another that wants to keep it wide open and corrupt. And everything seems to be related to James Burton, a young aspiring lawyer, who has been accused of murdering his high-school aged babysitter, who was pregnant with his alleged child, and is set to be executed in a couple days. And it's up to Doyle to save Burton, avoid the cops, outrun the goons, and help a stray college student (Fay Adams) who is unknowingly caught up in all of this.

Bill Crider was right when he said, "The story is a lot more complicated than I can describe here, but it's a lot of fun. If you like the old-fashioned pulp-styled p.i. stories, you'd find a lot to like here. I know I did."

Even by Keene's standards, there's a lot of plot here—almost more than can fit in the book. Perhaps because the main character is outside of the conflict and not directly involved, the story feels more rote and detached than Keene's other books. There's something very pedestrian about the trail of evidence and the pile-up of obstacles in Doyle's way in If the Coffin Fits, as though Keene is amassing incident-after-incident in order to prolong the conclusion until a word-count is hit. The story does, however, display's Keene's classical sense of deduction, preferring to have his character use his intellect rather than his fists to piece the puzzle together. Not that there's any lack of action—If the Coffin Fits is slam-bang all the way—but Keene separates the violence from the logic of the story. Keene doesn't offer any easy outs for his protagonist: he makes Doyle work for the clues and think about what they mean.

One facet of Keene's writing that has become more apparent and fascinating the more I read him is the sense of restraint in his prose. He's hardboiled through-and-through, but he doesn't indulge in graphic depictions of violence or lurid passage of sex and lust. Often, as in If the Coffin Fits, his protagonists are  too busy running around to sleep with anybody—they rarely get any sleep themselves, unless they are knocked unconscious. Violence is also exhibited only in self-defense, and even then Keene's writing is economical and to-the-point, using as few words as possible to paint a mental image before getting on with the plot. Which is really what Keene is about—the plot. His pacing is unmatched, and for all of the intricate plotting he keeps things crystal clear and manages to tie everything up in the end, often in a whirlwind final few paragraphs.

If the Coffin Fits isn't one of Keene's greatest books, but it's damned entertaining, nonetheless. And that's something for which he can always be counted on.


  1. What is his best book in your opinion? I really should try one.

    1. His 50s novels are pretty consistent, but I'd say HOME IS THE SAILOR would be up there as one of his best, Hard Case Crime republished it, so it's not hard to find.


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