Friday, May 20, 2011
FFB: The Green Jade Hand - Harry Stephen Keeler
Even without all those collector milestones how can anyone resist the subtitle? "In Which a New and Quite Different Type of Detective Unravels a Mystery Staged in Chicago, Bagdad of the Lakes, London of the West!" The exclamation mark is part of the subtitle, by the way. Just like an old-time Broadway musical. And wouldn't this make a surreal bit of musical theater?
Casimer Jech, crooked curio dealer, is approached by millionaire Amos Carrington and together they hatch a scheme to acquire a rare manuscript mistakenly labeled as something fairly worthless to be auctioned off at an Evanston estate. Jech will pull a switcheroo and steal the book. If he pulls it off, Carrington will reward him with $5000 for the con. Only a few minutes after Jech replaces lot #122 with a doctored fake Horatio Silverthorne enters the auction and discovers that lot #122 is not what it should be. He soon learns that a man answering to Casimer Jech's precise description had previously looked at it. Silverthorne is sure Jech stole the book. He must have the book at any cost.
Enter Dirk Mattox, young inventor of the Mattox Noiseless Platen for silent typewriters. He is in love with Iolanthe Silverthorne, Horatio's daughter. Silverthorne makes a deal with Mattox. If Dirk can use his wiles and skillful bartering to acquire or purchase the rare book, Silverthorne will grant him his daughter's hand. Dirk has recently been offered a considerable sum for the patent on his invention. This may come in handy when bargaining with Jech. But Fate will deal several hands of funny cards to Dirk before he gets a chance to purchase the book. The first being the murder of Casimer Jech at the hands of a supposed safe cracker.
As usual with Keeler a multitude of characters and absurd coincidences complicate the plot. Luke McCracken, yeggman implicated in the shooting death of the curio shop owner; Thomas Steever, a hobo who finds the tiny jade hand of the title in his chop suey; the mysterious Sadie Hippolyte friend of Wah Hung Fung, Chinatown's "biggy kingie man" all play parts in the madness surrounding the hunt for the missing rare book. And of course there is Simple Simon Grundt, a half-wit janitor adopted by the local police and deputized in an odd way. He's allowed to accompany the cops on their rounds each time an alarm goes off. He fancies himself a great detective and the cops indulge him more for they own entertainment than as a favor to Simon.
It is Simon who through a series of farcical accidents will solve the multiple mysteries in this pure romp. The finale in this ludicrous tale is one of the most outrageous parodies of a Golden Age style detective novel in all of the genre. If you can handle Keeler's idiosyncratic writing (some call him unreadable) you will more than likely get a few laughs out of this.
I mentioned that my copy of The Green Jade Hand has the above rarely seen insert that Dutton included with some of their special monthly mysteries. While it may be possible to solve some of the "Dutton Clue Mysteries" written with the usually accepted methods of a fair play detective novel, I would wager that it is impossible to do so with any Keeler novel. I'd be curious to go through the Dutton archives to see how many of these cards were returned with the correct murderer identified for any of Keeler's books. Or any returned coupons for any book, for that matter. They were eventually dispensed with in favor of a single page bound into the book with a similar but tersely worded challenge and the coupon was absent.