Sunday, October 16, 2022

Day Keene's Wake Up to Murder

Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969) was a fairly prolific American novelist and scriptwriter who wrote under the name Day Keene. Wake Up to Murder, published in 1952, was one of his early novels.

Jim Charters works in a lawyer’s office. He doesn’t get paid much. It’s a menial position. He tends to get the given the dirty jobs. Like telling Pearl Mantinover that her appeal has been rejected and that she’s going to be executed for murder. Pearl is a nice girl and Jim figures she’s probably innocent and this his boss, Kendall, badly mishandled her defence.

Jim tries not to think about it. His life is not that bad. His marriage to May is a good marriage. They’re getting by. And it’s his birthday. It turns out to be a disastrous birthday. Jim gets fired, he thinks May has forgotten his birthday, he takes a few drinks, he takes a few more drinks, he ends up in every bar and dive in Sun City. He wakes up in a hotel room with no idea how he got there. What he does know is that he spent the night with Lou, a cute girl from the office. He feels bad about that. He finds that despite his night on the town he has more money in his wallet than he had at the beginning of the night. That confuses him. Then a guy called Mantin shows up, tells Jim how pleased he is that Jim is going to do that job for him and leaves Jim with an envelope. It’s payment for the job.

The envelope contains ten thousand dollars (a huge fortune in 1952). Jim’s problem is that he doesn’t remember ever meeting Mantin and he doesn’t remember what it was that he agreed to do for him. It has to be something pretty big. Ten grand is a lot of money.

Now Jim isn’t just confused, he’s frightened.

He decides to tell May everything. It’s obvious that he has to find this Mantin guy. And get out of the mess he’s in. He remembers very little of the previous night but he figures he was shooting his mouth off, trying to make himself seem more important. Presumably he claimed to be able to do something that in reality he couldn’t do, and Mantin took him at his word and offered him the ten grand to do it.

Slowly the pieces come together but Jim just seems to be getting into deeper and deeper trouble. Pretty soon there’s a murder for which he is the prime suspect. There are various shady characters who come into the story, some of them very dangerous indeed. In classic noir style Jim Charters has been plunged into a nightmare world and he has no idea how to get out of it because first he has to figure out how the nightmare started.

And he has two women to deal with and he’s not sure if he can trust either of them.

The cops are also likely to be troublesome. Even Jim would have to admit that the story he has to tell them doesn’t sound the slightest bit believable.

This book boasts a nicely devious plot, with both the reader and Jim Charters encountering plenty of unexpected twists.

Keene has a solid prose style. It’s only moderately hardboiled and there isn’t the snappy dialogue one associates with the hardboiled style. There is however plenty of paranoia. Jim Charters has no shortage of things about which to be paranoid.

There’s not a huge amount of action. It’s a plot-driven tale rather than an action-driven tale. Don’t expect shoot-outs and high body counts. Jim Charters is no tough guy. He’s just an ordinary joe and he’s out of place in a world of gangsters and murder.

The sleaze level is quite moderate, in fact very moderate.

This is an unassuming little novel but it’s a well-told well-plotted story and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Sleep with the Devil, published two years later, is a much more noirish, much more cynical and much sleazier Day Keene novel and it is on the whole a much better book (and a better place to start if you’re new to this author).

Stark House Noir has issued three Day Keene novels (this one, Sleep with the Devil and Joy House) in a single paperback volume.


  1. I have been wanting to read something by this author. I got a kindle version of Sleep with the Devil, and I will look into a copy of the Stark House collection you noted.

    1. I just love those Stark House three-novel paperbacks.