Friday, March 10, 2023

Day Keene's Joy House

American writer Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969) wrote more than fifty crime novels under the name Day Keene. Joy House was published in 1954.

Mark Harris wakes up in a mission. He has no idea what city he’s in or what the date is, or even what month it is. He doesn’t remember anything about the previous five weeks. He was too drunk. He does however remember what happened before that. For example he remembers shooting his wife. He also remembers that he was a very successful trial lawyer. Not however a very ethical one. Had he been ethical he would not have had to shoot his wife.

He assumes the California cops are searching for him so it’s a bit of a relief to discover he’s now in Chicago. It’s an even bigger relief when he discovers that the cops are not searching for him after all. But his problems are not over. Cass will still be searching for him. Cass is his late wife’s brother. Cass is a gangster. Mark knows that Cass will kill him when he finds him.

In the meantime he’s in this mission. He gets preached to, which doesn’t impress him very much but if you don’t let them preach to you they won’t feed you. There are compensations. Mrs Hill is the major compensation. She helps out at the mission. Mrs Hill is a widow, she’s about thirty, she’s petite and pretty and blonde. She’s remarkably nice to him. She says she’ll get him a job. Which she does. She offers him a job as her chauffeur.

Everybody at the mission tells him that Mrs Hill is crazy but they won’t say why. In fact they don’t seem to know what’s crazy about her. They just know that she’s crazy.

She’s also rich. Rich and crazy can be a dangerous combination. She lives in a strange house - a mansion in a sum neighbourhood, richly furnished but with all the windows boarded up. It’s a slightly depressing house, hence the ironic title of the novel.

Mark forms his own theory. She’s been a widow for ten years. He cannot imagine how a woman could live without sex for ten years. He figures that she picks up men at thew mission. Men who aren’t really bums, men who are simply going through a rough patch. She picks them out, employs them as her chauffeur and uses them as bed companions.

That’s his initial theory but it soon gets blown out of the water. He comes up with a new theory. She really has gone without sex for ten years and now she just can’t stand it any longer.

Mark is good at coming up with theories to explain women, but his theories don’t seem to work out where Mrs Hill is concerned.

He does seem to correct in his assumption that she wants to sleep with him but then she pulls a few unexpected twists on him.

Even when he finds out that, like him, she has dark secrets in her past he still can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together.

And there are pieces of that jigsaw that he can’t fit in anywhere and he isn’t even sure if they are part of the jigsaw.

The final resolution of the puzzle is handled pretty neatly. It all feels right. And the ending is very noir, but not necessarily in a totally conventional noir way.

This is however very definitely noir fiction. Mark isn’t a particularly admirable human being and Mrs Hill may or may not be a femme fatale.

It’s also very definitely an erotic noir thriller. The sex isn’t the least bit graphic but it’s eroticism that drives much of the plot. And in the case of at least one major character it’s a very unhealthy eroticism. In fact you could argue that all the eroticism in this novel is at least somewhat unhealthy.

Keene’s prose is in keeping with the very dark cynical tone of the book.

Joy House is a nasty little minor noir masterpiece. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Day Keene’s Sleep With the Devil, another noir classic (although a lot more violent than Joy House) and Wake Up to Murder (which is quite good). All three novels are included in a Stark House Crime Classics triple-header paperback edition.

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