Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Sunday 31 March 2013

Strange Witness by Day Keene (Graphic Books 58) (1953) (PBO)

Former nightclub entertainer Hart Jackson leaves prison after serving seven years a for a crime he didn't commit, having taken the rap for a frame-up that had ensnared his brother. Hart is now determined to kill the man responsible, Chicago crime lord and night-club owner Flip Evans. However, he rapidly becomes ensnared is a surprising series of events after meeting nightclub singer Thelma Winston, who claims she can clear Hart's name.

Thelma insists that Hart marries her before she is prepared to put in writing what she has told him, and she offers Hart some much needed cash with much more to follow if he agrees to her demand. the pair marry and arrive in Chicago, but they have been followed, Thelma is shot and badly injured and Hart is suspected of her shooting. Before going on the run, Hart is assured by Thelma that she hadn't set him up and is urged by her to take care of Olga, who is currently in a local hotel room. But who is Olga, what does she know and can she help Hart get out of his increasingly dangerous predicament?

This is a pacy, if slightly implausible, paperback original noirish crime melodrama that barely lets up from the first page and whose headlong narrative makes one overlook much of its narrative contrivance. The pieces all come together neatly - possibly rather too neatly - and there are also one or two clever twists, including one which I didn't see coming and had to turn back the pages to work out how it happened and whether it made sense (it does).

The bleak atmosphere of a seedy and Wintry Chicago is well-evoked within a novel where there is little or no narrative fat, the occasional violence is often realistic and painful and Keene spins a short, sharp,taut and twisty yarn with some flair and an eye for character, locale and a neatly turned phrase that keeps one turning the pages. Overall, it's a recommended read, if not perhaps one of its author's best.

AFTERWORD: Day Keene (real name Gunnar Hjerstedt) was one of the top paperback crime writers of the 50s. Having started in the pulps, Keene penned around fifty novels, as well as writing for film, TV, radio and the aforementioned pulp magazines. His books are generally distinguished by a direct writing style, and fast-paced - if occasionally implausible plots (I failed to mention that the hero of this one is also a ventriloquist whose voice-throwing skills have a direct bearing on the narrative and make him probably the finest exponent of his craft who never lived).

Many of his novels, like this one, feature a male protagonist on the run fighting to clear his name from a crime he did not commit and appeared between the covers of the popular paperback and digest publishers of the day (for example, Gold Medal, Graphic, Pyramid, Avon, Ace, Zenith, Lancer, Phantom Books).  Author Bill Crider - who has written about Keene in far more detail and with more knowledge and insight than I can offer - is a fan and, if you read one or two of his 50s crime novels - some of which have recently been reprinted by the likes of Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press - I am sure you will be too.

This one has been reprinted by Macfadden Books in 1970 (an easier edition to find than the Graphic Books PBO) and in large print by Linford Library in 1991. It was also filmed in France in 1961 as Cause Toujours, Mon Lapin, with a dubbed DVD-R version (presumably the US release version) available from Sinister Cinema as Keep Talking, Baby (see the next entry).