Sleep With the Devil / Wake Up to Murder / Joy House

Day Keene (1903–1969) may not have “invented” noir but he and his contemporary authors (which included Jim Thompson and David Goodis), churning out crime and mystery fiction during the heydays of Fawcett Gold Medal and Lion Book paperback originals, laid the foundations for what is today known and revered as noir.

Now, thanks to this trio of Keene crime novels from the 1950s republished under Stark House Press’s Crime Classics banner, we get to experience noir in the making.

Les Ferron, in SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL (1954), hopes to leave his past life of crime behind by becoming Paul Parrish, a bible salesman in a small town outside of New York. But Ferron’s cravings for the luxuries of big city life, as well as those who know his real identity, are quickly catching up to him. In WAKE UP TO MURDER (1952), Jim Charters’ life unravels in one eventual day, and Charters finds himself waking up with his boss’s secretary. Then a gangster pays Charters for a deed Charters can’t remember doing, but suspects might involve murder. And in JOY HOUSE (1854), Mark Harris wakes up in a Chicago rescue mission after a 5-day drunk, with the memory of killing his wife. Knowing he must hide from his past Harris becomes the chauffer to a woman who supports the rescue mission. But then Harris discovers that the woman’s house is an altogether different kind of prison.

As intriguing as his plots are, Keene instinctively knew that character was a key element to his stories. So we follow the central characters in each of these stories as they begin at or near the bottom and work their way down deeper (a fundamental noir element). While we never truly sympathize, the fascination with these individuals hooks us early and carries us through each of the three narratives.

WAKE UP TO MURDER and JOY HOUSE are told in first-person narration. But Keene was equally comfortable with the third-person perspective used in SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL. Both points of view keep the focus on the main character throughout the entire story.

Keene’s style is classically hard-boiled. But unlike many similar stylists who followed, Keene’s cynicism is superbly understated. His metaphors are kept to a minimum. Yet the pessimism is strongly evident in both the actions and interior observations of the protagonists, as well as in the dialogue. There is no mistaking Ferron’s attitude in SLEEP WITH THE DEVIL, for example, when Keene begins the novel by stating, “He was in no special hurry to kill Bennett.”

David Lawrence Wilson’s introduction traces the author’s career and shows how the Chicago-born Gunard Hjertstedt became Day Keene. But unfortunately Wilson’s preoccupation with the many editorial alterations of JOY HOUSE makes his observations of the other two novels seem like rushed afterthoughts.

This is the second collection of republished Keene novels from Stark House Press. Let’s hope more such collections are forthcoming, so today’s fans of noir can continue to discover the roots of the style in the enduring works of authors like Day Keene. —Alan Cranis

Get it at Amazon.

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