The origins of Day Keene’s 1951 novel LOVE ME AND DIE are a little murky. According to Gil Brewer’s stepdaughter, Brewer ghosted this novel for Keene, expanding one of Keene’s pulp stories to book length. One website identifies the source novella as “Marry the Sixth for Murder”, from the May 1948 issue of DETECTIVE TALES. This seems pretty feasible to me. Keene and Brewer were friends, and since Keene was already an established writer as the Fifties began, with more than ten years as a popular pulp author under his belt, I can easily see him farming out this expansion to Brewer. Whether LOVE ME AND DIE was written before or after the first two novels Brewer sold to Gold Medal, SATAN IS A WOMAN and SO RICH, SO DEAD (both of which also came out in 1951), I have no idea. But since Brewer probably used quite a bit of Keene’s original novella, I think the book-length version can be regarded as a true collaboration between two of the top suspense novelists of the Fifties. But the question remains, is it any good?
Well, yeah. What did you expect?
The narrator/protagonist of LOVE ME AND DIE is Johnny Slagle (not a great name for the hero of a book like this). Like W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox and Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner before him and Carter Brown’s Rick Holman after him, Slagle is a Hollywood troubleshooter, a private eye who’s on retainer to the movie studios to keep their big stars out of trouble. As such, he gets a call in the middle of the night from an aging, many-times-married screen idol who thinks he has just run over a woman while driving drunk in the middle of a rainstorm. He’s not sure, though, because he didn’t stop to check. That job falls to Slagle, who has to find out if his client is really a hit-and-run killer, and if so, figure out a way to cover it up.
Of course, things don’t stay that simple. Gamblers and starlets and thugs are involved, as well as a gun-toting cowboy from Oklahoma, and wouldn’t you know it, not only does Johnny get hit on the head and knocked out a couple of times, but there’s another murder and he’s framed for it, which means he has to dodge the cops while trying to find the real killer. Yes, it’s a standard plot, but Keene and Brewer throw in some nice twists on it, holding back two of them until very late in the book.
The key to a book like this is the writing, and the pace never slows down for very long in this one, which is all to the good. For the most part, it lacks the intensity of some of Brewer’s other books, but there are a few scenes that vividly capture the sweaty desperation that threatens to overwhelm most of his protagonists. I got the feeling that maybe Brewer was holding back a little on his natural voice as he expanded Keene’s novella, perhaps in an effort to make the book sound more like Keene’s work. I don’t know the details of their arrangement, so I can only speculate. As it is, the blend is a good one. LOVE ME AND DIE is no lost classic or anything – it’s just a shade too generic for that – but if you’re like me and grew up reading and loving books like this, I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty rare. Originally published as a digest-sized novel by Phantom Books, it was reprinted by Harlequin in the Fifties, Paperback Library in the Sixties, and Manor Books in the Seventies (the edition I stumbled across and read). A few copies of the earlier editions are available on-line, but they’re pricey. The Manor edition doesn’t show up at all. So if you ever come across a copy of any of the editions, my advice would be to grab it. And if you happen to have a copy on your shelves but have never read it, I think LOVE ME AND DIE is well worth the time. Keene and Brewer have both made a comeback of sorts in recent years. Maybe some enterprising publisher will reprint this collaboration by them, one of these days.