Sunday, January 22, 2017

Harry Stephen Keeler Remembered

Harry Stephen Keeler in his youth.
On January 22, 1967 the world lost one of its premiere imagineers. Harry Stephen Keeler shuffled off this mortal coil to join his beloved Hazel on that date and the world of mystery fiction became a little less joyful, a smidgen less madcap, and whole lot less fun. Today Richard Polt, founder of The Harry Stephen Keeler Society has put out a special issue of Keeler News, that fanzine dedicated to all things Keelerian, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of this true original. In preparation he asked Society members to join in with their own tributes of one sort or another. I decided to take down from the shelves one of the handful of Keeler novels I hadn't read, devour it as quickly as I could, and churn out something suitably honorary. I missed the deadline of January 15 to make the issue, but just in the nick of time here is my bit to honor the memory of one of mysterydom's most original and audaciously imaginative writers.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown (1935) is quintessential Keeler.  It contains every one of his trademarks that made a Keeler mystery novel unique and absurd, laughable and sweet. We get the usual Keelerian arcane lectures on everything from the history of antique safes to the origin of obscure Texan surnames; a rainstorm of letters handwritten and typed (one lasting over three chapters!) detailing background adventures of the large cast of characters; lunatic dialogue rendered in intricately composed phonetic dialects capturing everything from Southern Black to Southern Texan; and of course the pursuit of an oddball Macguffin, in this case the skull of the deceased clown in the title.

But how can I overlook the story -- or, rather stories, as is the usual case with good ol' Harry. Here's a sampling of one of his most convoluted, interfolding and overlapping, multiply plotted books. George Stannard, salesman for Recherche Shirt Company, tells of his meeting with Harold Colter in Honolulu where he barely escapes the horrors of being drugged with the weird exotic Pau-Ho capable of putting a person in an amnesiac coma for six weeks only to reawaken and be compelled to tell the truth for another 72 hours. Simon Stannard, George's uncle and owner/publisher of 7-Tales Magazine, talks of his brother's $1000 promissory note and how he intends to get George to repay the note in the most ridiculous roundabout way possible by intervening the crooked plans of one Titus Fenwick, con artist, former sleight of hand magician and notorious card sharp. Fenwick (according to a monstrously long letter Uncle Simon has in his possession) got involved with a trio of crooks nicknamed Charon, Nitro and Sparkle-Eyes whose plan to commit insurance fraud involves stealing the skull of one of their now deceased cronies and passing it off as the skull of another dead crook who just happens to have a large insurance policy waiting to be claimed. The identification by skull, by the way, is now a legality thanks to a Supreme Court decision that allows for dead bodies to be identified via phrenological reporting. And wouldn't you know it -- both dead men recently underwent phrenology readings by a new-fangled invention at the Chicago World's Fair and have their skull bump findings meticulously reported and on file in the inventor/doctor's research office. Whew! I better stop there before I further entangle your minds with weirdness.

The true action of the book takes place in a single room and consists of nothing more than a conversation between George and Uncle Simon who has summoned George to his Chicago home for a favor or two. Over the course of 247 pages nephew and uncle share anecdotes of their lives and a horde of letters and telegrams each relating a series of outlandish adventures, stories filled with coincidence and Fate. The long conversation culminates in a journey to El Paso, Texas where George meets up with his Fate and Keeler ends his surreal tale of the Law of Cross and Re-cross with one of his most outlandish twist endings.

Just what exactly is this Law of Cross and Re-Cross? In essence it's Keeler's own way of putting into simple language (if that's remotely possible for dear ol' Harry) the metaphysical idea of Karma. It's one of the first times a character in Keeler gets remotely intellectual or philosophical with an exchange of ideas about Eastern religions and the mysteries of Life. But more importantly its really the crux of the novel and the worldview of the Keelerian universe put forth all at once. For nothing is ever pointless in the world of Harry Stephen Keeler. Each bad act is paid for years down the line just as every good act will be rewarded. Simon Stannard believes that everyone will meet up for a second or third time, in one way or another, with every person they have ever encountered throughout their life. George initially scoffs as such an idea: "Damn Foolery, I would say. Everybody's lives would re-cross--and an infinite number of times, too--if all lived long enough. Doctrine of chances." And Uncle Simon counters with this bit of mumbo jumbo:

"...this theory isn't based on chance, I tell you. It's based on some occult principle that the deviative effect--on each other--of two people crossing one another's paths, diverts their progress in space and time by such a four-dimensional angle that they positively must cross again."

George shakes his head and says it's all way too deep for him. And how!

Yet Uncle Simon manages to prove the theory by producing the monstrous letter mentioned several times already and show how Titus Fenwick has entered his life multiple times. George will also discover how his adventure in Hawaii with the Pau-Ho trickster will come back to haunt him as well as George's decision to have a story called "The Verdict" by one O Lily Sing Lee published as a last minute replacement in Uncle Simon's pulp story rag 7-Tales Magazine.

I ought to mention to all my locked room and impossible crime fans that "The Verdict" appears in its entirety in the novel and is Harry Stephen Keeler's only contribution to the "locked room" crime subgenre in detective fiction, though many of his books contain impossible crimes, whether intentional or not. A man is found stabbed to death in a locked room, the Chinese dagger fallen on the floor.  The only other entrance/exit is an unlocked window "looking down 10 stories into the street and the park." Additionally, the only fingerprints found on the weapon belong to the person who packed the dagger and sent it to the collector. Who stabbed the man and managed to escape from the locked room? The solution propounded by the forensic pathologist is suitably ridiculous as well as bordering on the supernatural which makes it perfect for its appearance as a chapter in The Skull of the Waltzing Clown.

Let it not be forgotten that amid all the raucous dialogue and the absurd shenanigans of the cast of a thousand lunatics that our pal Harry is an incurable romantic. While George is being blackmailed into a criminal enterprise by his wicked avaricious uncle the fickle fingers of Fate conspire in the ethereal shadows of the fourth dimension to work out a scheme that will reward the seemingly hapless young man with something far richer than money. George, you see, has met the girl of his dreams. But he never discovered her name and knows her only by his invented nickname --"the Rebel". She has eyes that are "blue like the stars over Boston on a winter's night---and her hair was stolen from a cornstalk in Fairyland."  If that's not a romantic talking, than I'll eat my winter ski cap with a generous helping of soy sauce! While Keeler's preposterous crime plots are impossible to solve the outcome of his romantic subplots are happily easy to guess. It's no coincidence at all that the only real candidate for being "the Rebel" will cross paths with George just prior to his setting foot in El Paso, that he will have done something previously to increase the young girl's fortune without her knowing, and that they will plan out their lives in an optimistic bliss promising marriage and happy endings. All of this --of course -- will coincide with the thwarted plans of wicked Uncle Simon.

And if that's not the best reason to believe in Fate, coincidence, and the Law of Cross and Re-Cross then I don't know what is.


  1. Thanks for this John - I've never read his stuff - partly as I just haven't come across it easily enough and partly because it sounds so convoluted and potentially off-putting for the more 'casual' reader looking to dip their toes (sic). But if this is the right place to start, I will try and give it a go!!!

    1. I think there are other more entertaining and better told Keeler books to start with. The Green Jade Hand, The Case of the Ivory Arrow and The Washington Square Enigma are the three that I suggest for the novice Keeler reader. To me, they're the closest to genuine detective novels told in as close a linear fashion as Keeler ever managed. And the action in those three books happens in "real time" as opposed to "past action" stories related in letters or revealed in monologue conversations as in Skull of the Waltzing Clown.

    2. Another easy to read Keeler with a straightforward narration is The Fourth king.

    3. I've read that one but it wasn't one of my favorites. The business with the automotive engine and that mechanical thing in the exhaust system or the brakes or something went way over my head. There's also some insanity about the mechanics and designs of typewriters in that one, if I remember it correctly. Plus a scene that takes place on Goose Island which is a rarely used locale for books set in Chicago.

      Similarly, I've read The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman, Find the Clock and The Amazing Web all of which tend to be action oriented in real time with little of the inserted short story gimmick or the lengthy character monologues Keeler loved so much. But all three are also a bit too kooky for a "Keeler virgin" which is what Sergio is and why I recommended those "safer" three books in my comment above.

      OH! Just remembered this. ...Fiddling Cracksman was the first Keeler I ever read. It got me coming back for more primarily because it was so utterly kooky.

  2. Only encountered Keeler's work once, The Riddle of the Travelling Skull and I think once was definitely enough for me! The complexity/density of his plots combined with their wackiness is a bit too much for me.

    1. Ah, well... The wackiness is the only reason to read Keeler, of course. I am in awe of the way he strings together so many seemingly disparate plot lines. His wild imagination also could be eerily prescient and right on the money. In this book he invents a political party called the Disappointment Party that Simon Stannard helped to found. Stannard is running for Chicago's mayor and intends to win using his influence and wealth on a platform that will appeal to the common sense of the everyday man. Sound familiar?

  3. All books by Harry Stephen Keeler are now available from Ramble House (both paperback and ebook)