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Underground Reading: Home is the Sailor by Day Keene

This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

Home is the sailor hccI reviewed Day Keene's Home is the Sailor (briefly) in 2011. Looking back, mostly to see if there was anything I could steal, I was delighted to find that my opinion of the book hasn't changed in two years. Which is that Home is the Sailor is pretty damn good and "if the faint mystery elements were shrugged off entirely, it would be even better." Pardon the egotism of quoting myself, but, I stand by it... Home is the Sailor is a gorgeous noir character study, rather unfortunately crammed into the format of a nonsensical Cold War thriller.

Swede Nelson is on dry land and ready to face his future. He's been a sailor for the past three years and an adventurer for the 18 before that. "In Mozambique. In Alexandria. In Tangiers." - Swede's been in tough situations doing tough jobs. Not in the James Bond / Modesty Blaise sense - Swede's been a miner, a roughneck and a general jack of all trades.

Swede's determined to find a nice farm and a nice lady. The first thing he does is buy a ticket to Hibbing, Minnesota, the least-adventurous place he knows, and therefore a good place to settle down. But before he gets on the bus, Swede goes for one last night of drinking... And that's where the story picks up.

In what soon becomes a familiar formula, the book opens on Swede, waking up in a strange bed, trying to figure out how he got there. In this case, it is a nicer bed than most. Swede's wound up in a well-to-do motel, escorted there by the motel's curvaceous blond owner herself, Corliss Mason.

Swede manages to piece together the events of his lost night - he beats a man unconscious (and is wanted for assault), he mauls Corliss (but impresses her anyway) and he wins a ton of money gambling (which is all waiting for him in the motel safe). All in all, a pretty good evening - made more so when the police agree that the fight was self-defense. The best part, of course, is Corliss. Swede doesn't know how exactly he charmed her, but he's head over heels in love. She's rich, beautiful, (cough) feisty and comes with a well-stocked bar. Everything he wants.

This pretty picture doesn't last for long. Swede's living the dream, but little fragments of a nasty reality keep popping up. Why would Corliss claim to have ironed his clothes when she actually didn't? Why is she so hot and cold? Who is Jerry, the bartender, and why does he keep showing up? Why does Swede get the impression that the motel's barman and maintenance man are laughing at him? When Swede's upset, he drinks. And the more he drinks, the more he loses control...

Every time Swede wakes up, he's in a different place, and these places get nastier and nastier... Swede's caught in the middle of something he doesn't understand, something very unpleasant.

Home is the SailorSwede's struggle with chaos and deception is the book's undeniable strength. He's already a man out of place - a landlocked sailor. His quest, to the halcyon pastures of Hibbing, is Quixotic - Swede wants a pedestrian, peaceful life with every rational bone in his body, but there's something more primal that's stopping him from boarding that bus. This connects with the origin of the book's title - Robert Stevenson's poem, "Requiem", which, in one sense, implies that a sailor only comes home to die.

With no path set for himself, Swede slips into the wake of others, following them and convincing himself that he's happy. The alcohol helps dull his sensation of unease, but it also makes him an easier target - with no memory, he lets others dictate his actions to him, sometimes literally.

Unfortunately, as noted above, this struggle - a man out of place - isn't the book's only conflict. Day Keene structures Home is the Sailor around a far-fetched plot involving Communist agents, mobsters and a missing millionaire. There's a bit of the "wrongly accused man" plot and a bit of the "Red Menace" and it all adds up to a deus ex FBI agent explaining what the hell just happened, because the whole thing is so ridiculous. This is, of course, a little harsh - Home is the Sailor has a vaguely genre & period standard thriller plot, it is just disappointing. This is an outstanding cast of characters, stuck in a mystery of middling quality. Swede and Corliss alone are enough to make this one of the best Hard Case Crime books so far, but it is a shame, as it could still have been even better.

Home is the Sailor was first published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1952. On the original cover, Swede is shown as a stereotypical drunken sailor staring blearily at a red-headed Corliss. The hair colour, incidentally, is a major spoiler and, combined with the action-free cover and saucy strapline, it conveys the publisher's total disregard for the mystery plot. The Hard Case Crime cover, on the other hand, emphasises this aspect of the book. Here, Swede is dressed in a suit and white shirt, with dress shoes, dangling from a cliff-face while a car tumbles off...

Despite my own disdain for the mystery element, I prefer the modern cover. I think the 1952 cover implies a certain predatory nature to Swede and Corliss's relationship which is only partially true. The modern cover may focus on the book's action elements, but it also more accurately represents the tantilizing ambiguity of how the two main characters relate.