Last month I finished my second full novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, Chicago’s original genius of massively complex, rhetorically twisted thriller novels. It was called Behind That Mask, and it is in every particular absolutely superb.
Of course, a brief recap may be necessary if you missed my earlier Keeler entries: “superb” here means “unreasonably entertaining in an inimitably bizarre fashion which too-serious people might call ‘bad’.” Harry Stephen Keeler writes with a vast, off-kilter imagination and doesn’t bother to filter it, and Behind That Mask presents his gleeful art at its very best.
The plot, as always with Keeler, is a pleasure to summarize because it is also a challenge. A young man named David Rand is in love with his co-worker, who’s referred to as “Winsome One,” but she is also beloved by their boss. All three work at a legal con operation which sells fake magazines. Meanwhile, in New York City the Chinese government is about to recover the last of the Thirteen Coins of Confucius, a magical set of tokens which, when united, will bring China good luck. Japanese secret agents conspire to steal the last coin, but it ends up in the pocket of a mysterious stranger. Said mysterious stranger is much more interested in a golden ring bearing an inscription in ancient Phoenician which will lead him to sunken treasure. Meanwhile, a Chinese wax worker decides to consummate his affair with the wife of a professional sword-swallower, a common criminal poses as an Egyptologist to crack a safe, and David and Winsome One’s boss, Jack Kenwood, is found with a gigantic hatchet buried in his skull. Of course, he’s not really Jack Kenwood…
You get the idea. Eventually, Kenwood’s murder, the lost Coin of Confucius, the ring leading to treasure, the Chinese man’s tryst, and David Rand’s love for the Winsome One will all be tied together into a surprisingly satisfying solution. But Keeler, that wily old genius, has a special shock in store: on the last pages of the book, he reveals that that solution, though completely logical and no more than usually improbable, is in fact wrong, and he then proceeds to unveil the real explanation for the whole book, in a plot twist so astoundingly bizarre that I actually stared at the book, jaw open, for several minutes, feeling betrayed and utterly perplexed. I tried sputtering “But…but…” –and yet it does make sense, even if it does involve rubber molds of fingerprints, blatant racism, and a circus Fat Lady.
I think that was when I realized I was a hopeless Keeler fan. Up until then, his novels had been mere entertainment, a source of immense pleasure. But now it was personal.
Behind That Mask does, of course, include a lot of really spectacular prose and dialogue. If you’re a believer in judging a novel by its first sentence, here’s this book’s: “Yin Yi, expert wax worker, gazed reflectively over the waxen head he had just completed for Captain Barraby’s Dime Museum and Chamber of Horrors, of Davenport, Iowa.” It’s Yin Yi, by the way, who’s having the affair with the sword-swallower’s wife. He is a supremely educated man with a love of big words and a veritable encyclopedia of passions and knowledges; she appears to have been plucked from the 1930s equivalent of a trailer park. Here is how they part ways on the telephone:
“One full and entire day together, the while the late fall sun rises–flows across the sky outside our arbor, seeing us not, nor seen by us–and sinks into Chicago’s smoke again. Rare viands to eat. Wine to speed the blood through our veins. Love, to make the heart beat faster. Very well, fair Nordic, with hair of a corntossel hue, matched only by skin of the softness of a baby’s, I will await your five taps the morning after tomorrow.”
The cast of supporting characters are no less interesting. Here’s Professor Wellington Hinchcliffe: “I hadn’t started in yet with my late afternoon work period. A friend of mine – a professor Alcibiades Brown – was just here, and we had a spirited session in rhythm and music, he on his tuba, and I on my snare drum.” A police detective: “Hold your horses, sonnie-boy. Hold your horses. I’ll try to take your queries in chromatic order!” And try this introduction on for size: “Brofessor Emil Wunderlich, sir, bresident of der sdringed insdrumend depardment at der Eendianahbolis Musikal Konservadory.”
One of Behind That Mask’s joys is that it offers a truly ridiculous play on the “hard-boiled detective” figure. Terry O’Rourke isn’t even a detective. He is an alibi-checker. His entire job consists in calling people and verifying alibis. We are therefore, in a gratifyingly weird spectacle, asked to romanticize the heroic figure of this embittered Irish “alibi-checker” sitting in an office, on the phone with 6 people at once.
O’Rourke has a few chips on his shoulder. He doesn’t like riddles. “Put on your lid. And ride down to the Bureau with me. … It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.” And he is gleefully racist: “For crying out loud, Kelvy–do you think I’m going to waste my time with a lot of Chinks’ lies about Chinks? Why don’t you put some white people on the wire?”
Unfortunately, O’Rourke finds himself all too entangled with “Chinks,” and with a puzzle to solve, too. Eventually Rand solves the cryptic Phoenician (and Egyptian) clues after an intense cryptology session which requires so much writing-out it consumes all the paper in his apartment, then all the toilet paper in his apartment, then, somehow, all the toilet paper in his entire building. That’s nothing, however, compared to what happens next: the clue reveals the location of buried treasure, which is found with the use of a half-mile-long tape measure.
In other words, there are manifold joys in Behind That Mask. It’s about as fun as can be legally had in a library. Harry Keeler’s dialogue is at its improbable, dialect-ridden best, his descriptions are filled with the childlike awe of a man who thinks he is dreaming big but really is dreaming madness, and the plot is just insidiously crazy. But my favorite element of the novel comes near the end, when Terry O’Rourke decides that the whole story is so weird it really needs to be written down. So he contacts a professional writer: none other than Keeler himself. Keeler agrees to write the story but refuses to meet O’Rourke because to do so would crimp on his imagination.
At this point O’Rourke explodes with anger. “These authors are all the same. They think they’re some kind of artist, an’ can portray a waterfront better when they’re on a desert.” Isn’t that fantastic? Better yet is his description of Harry Keeler’s work process: “His man reports he’s very busy sittin’ in a tub of cold water, with a half-dozen bottles of coca-cola and a straw, plottin’.”
If you’re into this kind of thing, Behind That Mask gives its reader a mighty good time. If you don’t know whether you’re into this kind of thing, well: how can you not trust an author who writes his books sittin’ in a tub of cold water, with a half-dozen bottles of coca-cola and a straw, plottin’?