DAY KEENE – If the Coffin Fits. Tom Doyle #1. Graphic #43, paperback original, 1952. Never reprinted.

   The first appearance of Tom Doyle, a PI with his own agency based in Chicago, and as far as I or anyone knows,, his only appearance in print. Day Keene was an extremely prolific paperback writer in the medium to hard-boiled vein, but he never went in for continuing characters. The only one I’m aware of is a fellow named Johnny Aloha, based in – can you guess? – and who showed up in a couple of book-length adventures back in 1959-60.

   Not that Chicago plays any part in this one. An long-time war buddy hires him to come out west to Central City, a town in a never mentioned state where, as it turns out, a certain but quite unknown Mr. Big has taken over, and with the lid off, almost anything goes. Anything crooked, that is. Gambling, prostitution, the works. Doyle’s specific job is, however, to find evidence to free a young lad sentenced to die in four days for a murder he didn’t commit.

   No, this is not the freshest plot in world of private eye fiction, but Keene was good enough writer to take the premise and run with it, with Doyle taking the brunt of it. Keene is best in this one in small scenes only, though, which are crisp and to the point. When needed on stage, individual characters come alive with a vengeance. Afterward they tend to fade away into the background again. The story is told in bits and pieces, some verging on brilliant, but somehow it never manages to come together into a satisfying whole.

   Which means, speaking specifically, while discovering the identity of the mysterious Mr. Big is the point of all the pain and miscellaneous agony Tom Doyle goes through, when the ending finally comes, it does so as a small unexpectedly minor climax. It needs more, and it’s not there.

   Overall, a prime example of Almost but Not Quite.