Friday, September 4, 2009

Home Is the Sailor by Day Keene (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Day Keene's name (itself a pseudonym for Gunnar Hjerstedt) isn't as well-known as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler, the acknowledged masters of noir literature. That's probably because Keene's writing isn't as generally palatable, tending toward an even darker tone than the others.

Even in a book with such irredeemable characters as Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, there is a sense that they are at least aware that what they are doing is wrong. There is no such guarantee with Day Keene. (In one of his later books, for example, one character has molested his mentally disabled sister so often that she stays in bed most of the time, just waiting.)

Home is the Sailor is, like most of its ilk, based on the common assumption that a woman who is good in bed can make a man do anything, and killing is just the beginning. Usually the men in these books are about half-witted, mostly unaware of how skillfully they are being manipulated until it's too late. Such is the fate of Swede Nelson, who falls into the clutches of young widow Corliss Mason and gets taken on the ride of his life, with options for the other kind, when all he wants to do is settle down and buy a farm....

Corliss is a lot of the draw that this book holds, her status as a femme fatale is secure, and Swede Nelson is the kind of fallible hero who is easy to identify with. I saw the revelation coming miles away, but I've been reading a lot of these kinds of books lately, and Keene more than makes up for it with the pace of the story (though it is a little on the long side once things start to wrap up). With Home is the Sailor acting as the springboard, I'll definitely be looking for more from Day Keene.

(I do have a couple of questions: How does a guy named Swen Nelson, of Scandinavian descent, nicknamed "Swede," end up with brown hair on the book cover? And why did it take two artists to do it? Although I have to admit that the separation is invisible.)

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