Saturday, February 2, 2019

Home is the Sailor - Day Keene

The police could pound on me until both of us were pulp without getting anywhere. I could take it. I knew. I'd been through a lot of fish-bowl sessions. It was different with Corliss. A few hours under the light with smart cops shooting questions at her in relays and she would get hysterical and tell her whole life story. But a wife couldn't be forced to testify against her husband. And Corliss was the only person in the would who knew I'd killed Wolkowysk.


Hard Case Crime - March 2005, Cover art R.B. Farrell and Gregory Manchess
I was buying Hard Case Crime paperbacks from the beginning, and when I heard they were going to publish an old Day Keene novel I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I bought this one as soon as it hit the stands at a long gone Borders Books. This was 14 years ago. Time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana, as Groucho Marx said. I read this one immediately when I got it, and must have been less than impressed with it, based on my Goodreads review, which is "Fall guy drinks a ton of rum."

Yeah, I was really lazy that day. What a crappy review of a pretty excellent book! I'm making amends now, rereading it these 14 years later.

I say it's an excellent novel given what it was when first published back in 1953 by Gold Medal. A nasty, violent, booze-filled thriller about a decent guy meeting the wrong woman. Who doesn't love that kind of story? And when I say booze-filled, I'm not kidding you. Our hero, Swede Nelson drinks rum like a little league team drinks Gatorade. There is barely a page in the novel that Swede isn't knocking back a slug of rum down his throat. And when he's not guzzling rum he's either busting someone's head or knocking boots with his new gal Corliss Mason.

We first meet Swede when he wakes up in a puddle of blood or sweat (he's not sure which) in a motel cabin just off the coast of California. He has practically no memory of the past 24 hours. He's spent the past 15 years at sea, and decided to retire that life with the notion of returning to Minnesota to buy a farm, get married and raise a family. The last thing he remembers is guzzling a boatload of rum and a game of dice behind a bar, then a dance with a couple of hoods with knives and blackjacks. So, in a rum-induced blackout Swede kicks the crap out of a couple of guys who tried rolling him. In the process he's "rescued" by a chick named Corliss Mason, who fortuitously arrives on the scene to take Swede back to her motor court named The Purple Parrot.

Of course Swede remembers none of this. He finds his uniform pressed and hanging in a closet, and wonders about his life savings, figuring the thugs took it. He's racking his brains trying to remember, wishing he had a bottle of rum for inspiration, when a girl named Mamie Meek enters his cabin. Mamie informs Swede that his money is in the motel safe, and that as soon as he's well enough, he needs to take his money and get the hell out of town. Mamie insists that Swede is in danger while staying at the Purple Parrot. But she doesn't tell him why. Swede also learns from Mamie that the Purple Parrot's owner, Corliss Mason, is the one who rescued him from getting robbed.

Swede barely has time to get dressed and make it to Purple Parrot's bar to knock back a few more glasses of rum before the sheriff shows up to arrest him on attempted murder charges. One of the thugs Swede beat up the night before is in critical condition. Swede insists that it was in self defense. The sheriff is inclined to believe him, but without any witnesses corroborating Swede's sketchy memory, he's hauled off to jail. By morning, Corliss Mason comes to bail Swede out of jail, confirming Swede's version of events.

Corliss is one of those noir babes that reek of trouble and sex. She convinces Swede that she's in love with him, and that he should marry her and stay on at the motor court. Whatever niggling doubts Swede has about Corliss is drowned under buckets of rum. She twists and teases Swede mercilessly and convinces him to stay on, despite Mamie's warnings to him. Corliss wants Swede bad, but tells him she cannot give it up for him until they're married. Wracked with sexual frustration for Corliss, Swede drinks himself into another stupor. Then in the middle of the night a hysterical Corliss comes to his room, her dress torn, her face bruised, crying that she's just been raped by a guy seen drinking at the bar earlier that night. Swede roars into action and finds the rapist sleeping in Corliss's bed. At the urging of Corliss, he proceeds to beat the guy to death.

What then follows is a harrowing account of the two of them trying to hide the body. Swede recognizes the dead guy from that night he was almost rolled. He wonders how the guy has ended up raping Corliss. Corliss tells Swede that the dead guy, whose name is Wolkowysk, has been trying to make it with her, and has been going up and down the coastline talking trash about her. She's glad he's dead. As long as they can hide the body, no one will ever know about her getting raped and Swede killing him for it. They can get married and live happily ever after, having crazy hot sex with each other.

It's all one big hell of a mess for our hero, Swede. He keeps telling us that he should have gone on as planned to Minnesota to buy that farm, but he's in too deep with Corliss now to ever escape. And worse, he admits that he's in love with her.

Yes...it's a crazy noir plot, and completely far-fetched. Swede is one of our great dumb hapless dupes who marches headlong into the trap set for him by a femme fatale. He even knows he's being played for a sucker, yet somehow, he can't seem to stop himself. Things go from bad to worse for him. And there isn't enough rum in the world to swim his way to freedom.

This is an easy book to find, thanks to Hard Case Crime republishing it. I think noir fans would dig it. Cheers, mate!

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