Friday, July 06, 2012

FFB Review: "MURDER ON THE SIDE" (1956) by Day Keene

Today is also Friday and that means it is time for Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott over on her blog at  Go there for the complete list after you read Barry’s latest review below….

MURDER ON THE SIDE (1956) by Day Keene

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

            Discontentment has become the abiding theme of Larry Hanson’s life. Employed for the past twenty-four years by the Atlas Engineering Construction Corporation where he has risen to executive status, he once hoped his engineering career would allow him to see some of the world’s exotic locales. But because of a fling with a file clerk named Olga Keebler he took home after an office party shortly after he joined the company, Hanson quickly found himself a husband and father in a marriage that soon became passionless and perfunctory. Over the years, Jack Hall, the lecherous owner of the company, has offered Hanson opportunities to work in foreign countries, but Olga has refused every time, preferring to remain in the upscale Chicago suburb where they live.

            Hanson’s life takes a dramatically different turn late one night while Olga is visiting her ailing mother, whom Hanson has never met, in Peru, Indiana. He receives a frantic call from his secretary, Wanda Gale, an attractive woman half his age, who begs him to come to her apartment because she urgently needs help. She won’t say why over the phone. When he gets there he discovers her former boyfriend, Tom Connors, passed out on her bed. Drunk and abusive, he tried to have his way with her and she hit him with a lamp.

            Hanson takes Connors out of there and drives him to Lincoln Park, depositing his unconscious body in a clump of bushes near the zoo. On the way he stops to buy a pint of whisky, figuring Connors will drink it when he awakens and protract his drunkenness, thus keeping him away from Wanda’s apartment. Before returning there himself, Hanson goes to an apartment-hotel and poses as an attorney to arrange for an efficiency apartment for his “client.” He returns to Wanda and spends the night with her, figuring she can move to the new place in the morning.

            Life seems great, all of a sudden, because Hanson is in love with Wanda and she declares that she loves him, too. But when Connors is discovered with three bullets in his heart, a cigarette lighter engraved with the initials L.H. and a bottle of whisky alongside his body, and the police hoping fingerprints on the bottle will lead to the killer, Hanson knows he could be in for trouble. He can’t prove he isn’t a murderer, and innocent circumstances attendant on his removal of Connors from Wanda’s apartment could amass to condemn him as one.

            Not too long afterward, Olga returns home from her trip. After working late one evening, then spending time with Wanda, Hanson goes home and discovers Olga dead in her bed, strangled with one of her nylon stockings.

            Are the killings related, or is Hanson the victim of bizarre coincidences?

            Suddenly he’s a fugitive, Wanda alongside him. When his escape plan backfires, he becomes a solo fugitive who knows that in the face of the overwhelming evidence pointing to him, he must find the real killer or killers or wind up in prison for life or, worse, in the electric chair.   

            What I’ve described is only a small portion of what happens in the first 22 pages of this 143-page novel by one of the most prolific writers to start in the pulps and make the transition to paperback originals. (How prolific? Take a look at Bill Crider’s article in Mystery*File:

            In his article “The Golden Harvest: Twenty-Five-Cent Paperbacks” in The Big Book of Noir (Carroll & Graf, 1998), Ed Gorman says of Day Keene: “Yes, he wrote too fast; yes, he wrote too much, but he managed to do some first-rate work...He had a mean, true feel for fallen men and women, even a sympathy for them, and in his best books he told compelling stories about working-class people trying to make some sense of existence....” Gorman includes Murder on the Side among his “mandatory reads.”

            I found it to be a very fast-paced and involving novel. Keene’s prose is lean, straightforward, and unpretentious. He generates suspense by steadily tightening the noose of circumstance around his protagonist’s neck, leaving the reader to wonder if Hanson will figure out how and why events have beleaguered him and who is behind them. If he succeeds, will doing so extricate or destroy him? Some of the answers are surprising.  

            If your reading diet needs some noirishment, this is a good source.

Barry Ergang ©2012
Murder on the Side is one of three Day Keene titles Barry Ergang has for sale at He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists, which have recently been added to. Some of his written work is available in e-book formats at ( and at Smashwords (          


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