Friday, December 20, 2019

The Book You Have to Read:
“To Kiss, or Kill,” by Day Keene

(Editor’s note: This is the 161st installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Barney Mandell once had it all. A for-real heavyweight contender who scored 42 knockouts in a row, he was “sex in purple boxing trunks and six-ounce gloves” in the ring, and “a big beautiful Polack” to his friends and fans. Yet Barney is far from well. Just released from a sanitarium after a self-imposed stay of two years, which followed his catching his wife in flagrante delicto, he begins the process of integrating himself back into Chicago society, but finds things may never be the same.

Urged by his doctor to quit the “sweet science” in order to maintain his mental health, Barney agrees, and he takes the change with equanimity and punch-drunk simplicity. “I took one punch too many, see? And it did something to my marbles,” explains Barney. To Kiss, or Kill is a non-PC tale from 1951 that elicits plenty of empathy from attentive readers as they watch Barney, step by step, get set up for a fatal fall; and plenty of admiration for the talents of author Day Keene (real name Gunnar Hjerstedt) as he makes that happen.

However eager Keene’s protagonist is to be reunited with his beautiful, wealthy wife, the lusty and sharp-tongued Gale Ebbling—who for seemingly no good reason avoids him—the certifiably sane Mandell is filled with trepidation at their impending reunion, with cause. How can he convince his hot-blooded socialite spouse that he’s sane when he believes he’s back-sliding into mental illness, and the circumstances around him support such a conclusion? It ain’t easy, as Barney discovers, especially when supposed friends keep his sanity out of reach … and dead bodies turn up wherever he goes.

Barney’s first stop after he’s liberated from the asylum is a bar, where he self-medicates with whiskey, and it’s there that his travails begin in earnest. He’s propositioned by one Cherry Marvin, a drop-dead-gorgeous brunette who’s slathered in the same perfume his wife favors; but no dice, he’s a one-woman man, and he turns Cherry down. Soon thereafter, he returns to his hotel room, only to be pistol-whipped and robbed. When he awakens, the woman from the bar is with him, naked and beaten to death—only now she’s a blonde.

It’s at this point that Keene launches his characters into their misinformation campaign to keep Barney on edge and the reader on high alert, looking for hints that will reveal the motives behind the relentless and inspired gaslighting to which Barney is subjected.

Mandell is held by Chicago police, but is quickly sprung by a very intriguing character, an agent with the U.S. Treasury Department who’s been trying to locate him, and whose motives for doing so are unclear. Just as soon as Barney believes explanations are forthcoming, his hopes disappear: that enigmatic agent is murdered (with a gun belonging to Barney), not long after he’d dropped the name of Barney’s long-missing Uncle Vladimir, a physics professor with very deep pockets. It’s obvious that Barney is a wanted man, but by whom and for what reason is what holds readers’ interest. When the red-hot typewriter of Day Keene starts banging away in high gear it gets one thinking that Gale Ebbling, so noticeable by her absence, is at the core of this mysterious and murderous matrix. Gale can only run for so long before the reader, the plot, and the author require that she appear with explanations to make this narrative come together.

Barney finally catches up with Gale at her hotel, and at first listen, never has the sweet music of love sounded so ominous. Barney hears the cries of vigorous lovemaking in the room, but they turn out to be coming from a parrot, Gale’s replacement for the bird Barney throttled when he found her in bed with another guy. This new feathered mimic is obviously repeating something it heard back when Mandell’s marriage was in limbo. But Barney can’t seem to put two and two together—unlike readers, who will be spinning theories on why these mismatched people became a pair in the first place.

As a society woman, Gale could have had her pick of eligible men—she’s the one with dough and class—yet she chose an addled and weary pug, a guy whose only virtue is his appeal as arm-candy. Barney’s no Gene Tunney, the close-but-no-cigar-intellectual heavyweight champ who married an heiress to the United States Steel fortune in 1928, so there must be something about her attraction to “a punk from the wrong side of the tracks made boudoir-presentable by limelight” than isn’t obvious. It only starts to make sense when the couple travel to Gale’s family’s estate to visit her socially prominent but cash-strapped father.

As adept as Keene is at scattering breadcrumbs for readers to follow, his expertise as the author of more than 50 novels and countless radio-drama scripts is belied by his sex scenes, which leave plenty to be desired. Behold this howler, which would more likely prompt Barney to call an exterminator, when he should instead be imploring the Greek god Eros for strength and stamina as Gale rips the clothes off his body: “…[H]er fingers felt like little white mice with hot feet racing across his chest.” And there’s no mistaking, even to an all-talk high school Casanova, just what is getting bigger when Barney observes Gale naked in the shower “with growing interest.” For sure, one wouldn’t read this book for edification or to prepare for a GMAT in English Literature; it’s value is that it offers a brief escape into imagined danger, and then a sense of relief as the story concludes. Keene had a genuine talent for compelling readers to turn pages.

How the crime/detective genre came to dominate the pulp-fiction market during the mid-20th century is a story for another time. It should be remembered, though, that Keene, like countless others—including the great Edgar Allan Poe, from whose agony and innovation all pulp-fiction writers sprang—wrote principally to make money, not art. He was among a legion of authors-for-hire who, at the fastest pace possible, created portable and captivating entertainment that could fit into the pocket of a commuter’s gray flannel suit. While the pulp-book trade is often deemed to be lowbrow in nature, such smirking snobbery fails to note that it was this genre, and others like it, that often provided an essential stop on a reader’s journey from Dick and Jane to, perhaps, Finnegan’s Wake. Helping readers to make take that step, that leap was an art in itself.

READ MORE:Nothing But Lip Service,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(Killer Covers).

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