MARCH 6, 2021
THOUGH NOT AS widely celebrated as his noirish contemporaries David Goodis and Jim Thompson, Day Keene was one of the hardest working pulp and paperback crime writers of the postwar era. He published a couple hundred stories in pulp magazines in 1940s, and 50 novels between 1949 and 1970. A newsstand Nero, his byline dominated publications for three decades with titles as alluring and enticing as the lurid covers that graced those cheap softcover thrill rides: Love Me — and Die! (1951), My Flesh Is Sweet (1951), To Kiss, or Kill (1952), Dead Dolls Don’t Talk (1959), So Dead My Lovely (1959). One title, in particular, perfectly sums up the Keeneian universe: Wake Up to Murder (1952). Countless protagonists in his books found themselves in that exact situation, rising out of unconsciousness to find a corpse by their side. Ironically, in Wake Up to Murder, it’s not a literal corpse the protagonist awakens to — perhaps that would be too on the nose, even for Keene — but an envelope of $10,000 and a promise to save a woman from death row who will be executed in two weeks.
While Keene’s works have been coming back into print recently — including four print collections from Stark House Press, six anthologies of his short fiction from Ramble House, and numerous ebooks from Prologue Books — his personal life is still shrouded in mystery. In readers’ minds, Keene, like his protagonists, is known for what he did, not for who he was. Private eyes, cops, soldiers, sailors, musicians, even pharmacists — Keene’s characters were largely defined by their professions, not by their background. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances was his specialty, and boy did he put them through the wringer; frequently, they’d be framed for a murder and have to outrun the cops and the gangsters while proving their innocence.
Unlike Dashiell Hammett, Keene was not a realist. There’s frequently an element of the fantastic to his work. It’s so heavy on coincidence that, at times, it blurs into nightmare territory reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich, albeit with more action and faster pacing. Keene himself cites “T. T. Flynn, Merle Constiner, Dale Clark, D. L. Champion, Peter Paige, William Brandon, [and] Tod Ballard” as models. “[I] saw how they handled their subject material and sat down and attempted to do likewise in a style natural to myself,” he wrote in an introduction to his story “A Great Whirring of Wings” in the Mystery Writers of America anthology Maiden Murders (1952).
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.
Keene’s emphasis on working-class characters is also a reflection of the mediums in which he worked, and their audiences. Pulps and paperbacks were newsstand grabs, ephemeral amusements for blue-collar audiences. The worlds of his readers are very similar to the worlds in which Keene’s narratives unwind. Wake Up to Murder begins with the protagonist, an errand boy for a lawyer who earns $60 a week, getting fired from his job. On his way home, he has to gauge how to break the bad news to his wife and how they’re going to make payments on their debts. Such paycheck-to-paycheck considerations were probably very familiar to many of Keene’s readers, and that connection might intensify their involvement in the ensuing drama.
Looking more closely at Keene’s background as an entertainer also illuminates how the demands of his professions — the constant traveling of an actor, the daily scripts for radio — laid the groundwork for his future in pulp and paperback fiction. “[I] have never claimed to be a writer,” Keene reflected in his Maiden Murders intro, “preferring to consider myself a teller of tales.” That distinction is significant, suggesting a deep link between the disparate phases of his career.
Keene’s capacity to adapt to myriad changes in medium — from stage to radio to print to television — reflects a will to survive one also sees in almost all his characters. With the odds stacked against them, Keene’s protagonists hang on for dear life, and the author, behind his typewriter, hangs on beside them.
Day Keene was born Gunard R. Hjertstedt on March 28, 1904 — a hard-luck year for Chicago. The Summer Olympics might have perked things up, but, as fate would have it, the city lost the prestige of hosting the international event to St. Louis, which was already planning its own Louisiana Purchase Exposition extravaganza. Keene’s paternal roots, as his birth name suggests, were Swedish. His father, Alfred George Hjertstedt, was born April 27, 1878, in Hermitage, New York, to Swedish émigrés from the town of Grenna, Alfred O. Hjertstedt and Anna Peterson.
Gunard’s mother, Daisy J. Keeney, was born in Trego, Kansas, sometime in 1878. Trego was, and still is, a small, sparsely populated area in the midwestern section of the state; maybe it could have been bigger if things had turned out differently. The Kansas Pacific Railway put a station there, right between Ogallah and Coyote, when it was competing with the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads for the first transcontinental route; but the Kansas Pacific never made it past Colorado, and ultimately linked up with the larger Union Pacific. Daisy’s family had been in the United States for several generations. Her father, John M. Kenney, was born September 21, 1842, in Indiana, had fought on the side of the Union with the 39th infantry.
Daisy and Alfred G. were married on June 30, 1902, in Chicago. Gunard would be their only child. Throughout Gunard’s childhood, the Keenes would live in Chicago’s 27th and 33rd wards, with his father working as a “bag master” for a “packing contractor,” according to census data, and his mother as a public school teacher. Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods would become a recurring setting for Keene’s later novels, such as Death House Doll (1954) and Who Has Wilma Lathrop? (1955), the latter of which also centers around a teacher (perhaps inspired by his mother) who goes missing.
Gunard’s World War II enlistment record indicates that, at some point, he had two years of college, but doesn’t reveal when or where. By the time he was 18 years old, however, he had already embarked on his first career as an actor, and was already using the name by which he would be best known: Day Keene — a condensed version of his mother’s maiden name, Daisy Keeney. A 1922 clipping lists him as a junior member of the Chicago Branch of Actors’ Equity Association using his preferred nom de plume.
When, and why, did Gunard start using the name Day Keene? One theory comes from Talmage Powell, a fellow pulp and paperback crime writer who was friends with Keene when they both lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1950s. In an interview in Pulp Vault #5 by Al Tonik, Powell claims that the “Day Keene” name was used during World War II when a pulp editor refused to use Gunard Hjertstedt.
When Day began writing for the magazines, he went up to the office of the editor who told him: “This name is absolutely impossible. I would like to cover-mention this story, but I am not going to put that name on the cover of the magazine. Why don’t you pick out a good pen name to work under?” On the spur of the moment, Day remembered that his mother’s maiden name was Daisy Keeney. Day thought to himself, “If I can’t use my father’s name, I will use my mother’s.” He contracted her name to Day Keene. That became his legal name.
While Powell’s timeline is contradicted by the 1922 Actors’ Equity notice, there is perhaps a grain of truth to the motivation: “Day Keene” is shorter and easier for many Americans to spell and pronounce than “Gunard Hjertstedt,” and for a commercial entertainer, adopting an easily recognizable and memorable name is a wise marketing strategy.
Nonetheless, between 1922 and 1929, Keene devoted his life to acting. In an interview with David Cranmer, pulp writer and jazz musician Charles Boeckman remarked that, “[Keene] was in vaudeville until it died.” Traces of Keene’s acting life have mostly disappeared, but from trade notices and newspaper accounts, it seems like he worked largely with traveling stock companies. On May 1, 1924, The Billboard reported that “Day Keene and wife joined the Jack Jencks Stock Company at Arkansas City, Ark.” The unnamed wife is Ruth Ullock, Keene’s first spouse, whom he most likely married sometime between 1920 (when Keene was still living with his parents) and February 24, 1924, when their son was born (Albert James Hjertstedt, who would grow up to be an author like his dad, under the name Al James).
By October 1924, the married couple were listed as having separate permanent addresses in the pages of The Billboard, with Day in Cincinnati and Ruth in New York. Is the difference because Day was on the road while Ruth was raising their newborn in a more stable environment? Or, perhaps, is it an early indication of a separation? By the end of the decade, the census lists Day back in Chicago living with his parents, and by 1940 Day and Ruth would be legally divorced.
1928 was a turning point for Day Keene — the earliest credit I’ve found of him as a professional writer. He and Wallace Norman (a pseudonym of Norman C. Kampfer) co-wrote a three-act comedy-drama called Four Out of Five, which opened at Chicago’s National Theater on August 5.
Keene’s curtain call came the following year. The last billing I’ve been able to uncover is in December 1929, when he was presenting the light-hearted mystery The Last Hour by Morris Musselman and L. F. Gershman at the Lexington Opera House with the Alney Alba Players. Fittingly, it’s the only instance of him acting under his real name, Gunard Hjertstedt.
From here on out, Keene would focus exclusively on writing. Boeckman’s interview with Cranmer offered one possible explanation for this career change: “[Keene] flipped a coin to see if he wanted to go to Hollywood for an acting job or make a living writing stories. Fortunately, it came up ‘writer.’” Another explanation might be that vaudeville was losing popularity by the end of the 1920s, with the rise of sound film. And, after 10 years on the road, it doesn’t appear that Keene was much of a star. Surely Keene was reflecting on his own experiences when, in “A Slight Mistake in Corpses” (Detective Tales, May 1942, collected in Ramble House’s We Are the Dead and Other Stories: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. 2), one of his characters concludes that “[h]is past life, as a small-time actor, […] had been futile.”
While the 1930s began with several pulp stories published under the name Gunard Hjertstedt, the majority of the decade was dedicated to a rising new medium. Commercial radio was just entering its second decade when Keene began writing scripts for broadcast entertainment. This time was crucial for his development as a professional writer, both in terms of his style and his practice. In his introduction to We Are the Dead, crime writer Ed Gorman emphasized “the influence [that Keene’s] years as a radio scriptwriter had on his pulp work. Radio was able to take the same kind of liberties with time that film does. And radio, dark and atmospheric as the mystery shows were, was usually about pace.” Keene’s prose certainly displays a cinematic sense of timing, moving swiftly from one scene to the next and extending moments of terror for dramatic effect, and it is also rich in filmic imagery. “The night became more kaleidoscopic,” Keene wrote in Wake Up to Murder, describing the bar hopping that would place the protagonist neck-deep in trouble, “places and people and sounds following each other in jerky sequence with the rapidity of a piece of broken film racing through an old-fashioned movie projector.”
The rigorous demands of a daily radio program also conditioned Keene to be both resourceful and prolific. In the 1940s, he was averaging at least one story a month; in the 1950s and 1960s, he averaged two and a half books per year. Keene recycled plots and reused elements out of necessity, not out of creative bankruptcy. The key to understanding Keene’s fiction really does lie in the airwaves.
One of Keene’s radio gigs was for that emblem of Depression-era childhood escapism, Little Orphan Annie. “The little chatterbox, the one with the pretty auburn locks” was, to kids of the 1930s, what all those Horatio Alger stories were to children of earlier generations: a shot of optimism in hard times. Together with Daddy Warbucks and her youthful companion, Joe Corntassel, Annie survived adversity, danger, the Depression itself. In Radio Mystery and Adventure and Its Appearances in Film, Television and Other Media, historian Jim Harmon describes an early episode in which Annie and Joe are “falsely accused of stealing money to buy candy they hopped a freight train to the city where they tracked down the real culprit and cleared their names.” Wrongly accused protagonists taking flight in order to prove their innocence? Just the sort of plot that Keene would revisit time and again during his days as a paperback writer.
One of the other shows that Keene wrote for was The First Nighter, an anthology program of dramatic works, written as though the listener is at a Broadway show — a fictional “Little Theatre off Times Square,” complete with celebrity sightings in the lobby as identified by the host. Premiering on Thanksgiving on Chicago’s WIBO station, The First Nighter was created and produced by Charles P. Hughes, who also played the titular host. Outside of The First Nighter, Keene and Hughes collaborated on another radio play, 48 Hours to Live, the very title of which foreshadows Keene’s pulp and paperback career.
Keene’s most notable radio project from the 1930s is one that borrows his own name: Kitty Keene, Inc. Co-written with Wallace K. Norman (Keene’s old collaborator from Four Out of Five), the show focused on a former Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, the titular Kitty Keene, who is now a grandmother who owns her own private detective agency. The program was initially advertised in Radio Mirror as being “for the woman who is sated with scripts for domestic difficulties which remind her all too much of her own troubles.” In his study Radio Crime Fighters, historian Jim Cox notes that the stories were more soapy than thrilling, and Kitty’s “fight for happiness was limited almost to the crises she encountered every day involving her husband and daughter; seldom did they involve her clients. The job and its accouterments, then, were hardly more than a ruse.” Only four episodes of the show are available on the web, but they all do indeed skew toward the soapy, being mostly concerned with Kitty’s daughter, Jill, whose association with a known gangster arouses the jealousy of her husband and eventually lands her in front of a grand jury. Even the sweeping orchestral strings that introduce the program, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s love theme from Romeo and Juliet, evoke an air of melodrama and leaky tear ducts.
The quarter-hour show was sponsored by Procter & Gamble, who used it to promote their brand of laundry detergent, Dreft, and premiered on July 6, 1936, on WBBM. Five-day-a-week nationwide broadcast over NBC’s prestige Red stations began in September 1, 1936. That schedule kept its writers busy. By December of their first year of production, Norman and Keene were already credited with 134 episodes. An early review from Variety was not enthusiastic. “As usual with this type of show the protagonists are sugary and sweet and the soul of sunshine and loveliness, while the villain has always a minor-key theme song preceding him. Characterization is uniformly bad. Written sloppily in the first place.” The review also noted poor use of sound effects, which overpowered the speech.
Despite the negative notice, the show’s popularity grew, expanding to Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bismark in May 1937. August saw NBC turning Kitty Keene, Inc. into a live broadcast, while still offering transcription discs for syndication over smaller networks. By October it could be heard in Honolulu. When the year ended, Wallace K. Norman and Day Keene were up to episode 351.
Norman did not stick around for long after that, leaving in January 1938. Starting in February, Keene would receive solo writing credit for the rest of the year, but was gone by December 1939. He was back on the airwaves almost immediately, however, with another First Nighter episode, “Who Feedeth the Stranger,” broadcast on December 22, 1939. It marked the end of a successful and prolific decade of radio work, and Keene’s first full decade as a professional writer.
“I had for some years been very profitably engaged in lowering the intelligence quotient of the American housewife via the radio soap opera route when in the words of Wakeman’s huckster I awakened one on morning to the firm conclusion ‘there wasn’t that much money,’” Keene jokingly reminisced in his intro in Maiden Murder. “Having purchased a home in Florida while in the chips (soap) I promptly repaired there only to be awakened a second morning, by the good wife this time, with the cryptic statement it was nice to have some money.” The spouse that Keene refers to is Irene Shmerl, his second wife. As Charles Boeckman told David Cranmer, Irene “was a retired school teacher who edited Day’s stories.”
And so, in 1940, Keene transitioned from the airwaves to the printed word. His earliest identified pulp story after leaving radio is “It Could Happen Here,” which appeared in the September 1940 issue of Ace G-Man Stories. Henceforth, Day Keene would be known as a writer of thrilling crime and mystery stories. And yet, though the mediums may have changed, Keene’s practice as a writer remained much the same, as did many of his themes.
He may never have returned to the stage professionally, but occasionally he visited it in spirit, using it as background for his stories. In his pulp yarn “The Charlie McCarthy Murders” (Detective Tales, March 1942), later expanded into the novel Strange Witness (1953), a ventriloquist released from prison uses his puppeteering and voice-throwing skills as instruments of revenge. Ventriloquism is also one of the weapons used by an ex-vaudevillian turned Nazi arch villain in “Herr Yama from Yokohoma” (Ace G-Man, February 1943). The theatrical world also takes center stage in Keene’s carnival noir Notorious (1954), as well as the traveling circus in Chautauqua (1960), co-written with Dwight Vincent (a pseudonym used by B-movie scribe and fellow pulpster Dwight V. Babcock), which was later adapted for the Elvis movie The Trouble with Girls (1969).
Keene’s experience as a performer also informs the underlying class tensions of “Wait for the Dead Man’s Tide!” (Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1949). He expanded the story into the novel Dead Man’s Tide (1953), swapping the genders of the main characters and publishing it under the pseudonym William Richards; it was later reissued as It’s a Sin to Kill (1958) under Keene’s own name. The narrative focuses on a musician couple in a Florida beach community (based on St. Petersburg, where Keene owned a home) who are framed for murder, and an undercurrent of bitterness runs from the opening scene to the end. In the original story, the wife is discovered on a luxurious yacht belonging to a rich tourist who is missing and turns up dead (in the book it’s the husband who is discovered on the boat). The servants are shocked and disgusted at seeing the musicians on the yacht, suggesting that the protagonists have broken a social code and are out of place — that they don’t belong there and never will. In contrast, the protagonists live on a smaller boat with only single beds, which they have to sell midway through the book in order to afford a defense lawyer. Making yourself homeless in order to save your life is true noir desperation. Despite Keene’s relative success as a writer, it’s evident that he never forgot what it means to struggle, or to be just one day away from destitution, and he instilled that knowledge deep in his characters.
The demands of daily writing for radio prepared Keene for the pulp and paperback market, where the faster one typed the faster the paychecks flowed. More crucially, his itinerancy in the ’20s is reflected in the rootlessness of his protagonists: a retired seaman on his way home gets drunk and awakens in a strange motel room and a world of murder in Home Is the Sailor (1952); a former prisoner of war returns home to find his family land sold out from under him in The Big Kiss-Off (1954); a soldier goes in search of his dead brother’s widow and child in Death House Doll (1954); and men are released from prison to find their old lives destroyed in Hunt the Killer (1952) and Strange Witness (1953). When his characters do have homes, they don’t seem very tied to them. Even for his pulp detectives, such as Chicago-based private eyes Matt Mercer and Tom Doyle, home seems to exist only at the end of a telephone line.
Transition, in some ways, defined Keene’s career. It was acting in the 1920s, radio in the 1930s, pulp in the 1940s, and paperback originals in the 1950s. It’s no surprise, then, that in the 1960s he took another turn, attempting to break into mainstream publishing with more serious novels: Seed of Doubt (Simon & Schuster, 1961), Bye, Baby Bunting (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963), L.A. 46 (Dell, 1964), Miami 59 (Dell, 1965), Chicago 11 (Dell, 1966), Acapulco G.P.O. (Dell, 1967), and Guns Along the Brazos (Signet, 1967). Keene even tried to crack the television market, penning a few episodes of Hawaiian Eye and Miami Undercover with his Chautauqua collaborator Dwight Vincent.
Keene’s final novel would be Live Again, Love Again (Signet, 1970), described on the cover as “The behind-the-headlines story of a heart-transplant patient and the women he loves.” By that point, however, Keene had already been dead a year, having passed away on January 9, 1969. It’s fitting that his career should end this way, with one last novel in the pipeline ready to go. For nearly half a century, Keene was a commercial writer, paid to entertain the masses, changing mediums with the whim of the market. Now, after being gone for another half century, it’s up to us to find the traces he left behind and piece together the mystery of Keene’s own story.
The life of Day Keene can at times seem hopelessly elusive, and large portions of his creative output are either lost entirely or out of print (though thankfully, publishers like Stark House, Ramble House, and Prologue are on the case). Unlike today, an era of unprecedented documentation where even once-thought-lost webpages can be resurrected from the ether by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Keene worked during times when entertainment was almost wholly ephemeral, intended to bring people — often working-class people — pleasure for just a brief moment.
And indeed, from our vantage point, Keene’s body of work sheds light on the significance of working-class audiences in both the technological and narrative evolution of crime fiction. Throughout his career, Keene focused on genres that were designed to be accessible, affordable, and portable. In the ’20s, stock companies brought theater to viewers who couldn’t afford to go to New York to see a Broadway show. In the ’30s, radio brought the drama directly into the homes of listeners; 20 years later, television offered the same novelty and convenience but with moving images. And by design, pulp and paperback publications were meant to be handled, thrown into bags, crammed into pockets, not stored on library shelves like hardcover books.
The audiences that consumed Keene’s work were also reflected in his choice of characters, their jobs, and their environments. Raymond Chandler famously said of Dashiell Hammett that he “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” While Keene certainly wrote his fair share of stories in which murders are committed just to provide corpses, as he matured his work better balanced recognizably human motivations with the fantastic scenarios in which he specialized.
Contemporary noir writers like S. A. Cosby (Blacktop Wasteland) and John Rector (Already Gone) continue in Keene’s footsteps, writing about working-class characters whose precarious existences lead them into quite extraordinary circumstances. With economic uncertainty rampant across the country, the dynamic of Day Keene’s world seems uncomfortably close. How many of us are one night’s sleep away from some fateful turn that completely upends our existence? This was the emotional reality at the core of so many of Keene’s works, and it’s just as potent today.