Monthly Archives: March 2011

Tube Talk

Tonight on the London Underground, I listened to the most glorious conversation I have ever heard. Here it is, uncut, as accurate as memory permits, nothing artificial added. It was spectacular enough on its own. As you will notice, about half of the lines spoken by one participant were utterly incomprehensible and I have reproduced them as such. You’ll notice that I don’t say anything, despite being physically in the middle of the train and in the middle of the conversants. That’s because I couldn’t possibly equal them.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE
Drunk Scotsman. Bald, wearing giant boots, a kilt, and one of those belts with fur things hanging off, with gigantic tattoos on each arm.
Three Tarts. 20-somethings with tons of makeup and their hair done up in buns situated literally on top of their heads. Ordered by attractiveness, ie, Tart #1 is prettiest.
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. In a dark red coat.
Young, Sober Scotsman. On the other side of the block of seats from the Drunk Scotsman. Definitely not wearing a kilt.
Meek Asian Man. Seated directly next to Drunk Scotsman.
Bob Balaban Lookalike. Except slightly taller.
Random Dude #1.
Random Dude #2. Wearing red Yankees hat.

I arrive in the Tube car and squeeze down the middle aisle, grabbing hold of that little pole in the center. Also holding on is Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. Behind her, seated to my left, is Drunk Scotsman. Directly to my right, seated, are the Three Tarts.

Drunk Scotsman. Well! I can’t believe, we play Brazil.
Random Dude #1. I don’t think you can beat Brazil, though.
Drunk Scotsman. Bleh! Well. (turns to Meek Asian Man) D’ye think we ait a be Brazil?
Meek Asian Man. Yes. (smiles)
Tart #1. My legs hurt.
Tart #2. Why’s that?
Tart #1. I just shaved em and we walked around all day and they’re sore. Have you got any cream?
Tart #2. No.
Tart #1. Have you got any cream?
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. No.
Drunk Scotsman. Ach, ye mehlemlymlelmhelheylhylylhel!
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman makes a slightly alarmed face.
Tart #3. Here.
She hands Tart #1 a small red canister of something which produces a white foam.
Tart #1. Ah! (pats it on her legs) That feels wonderful.
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman makes a revolted face.
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. You’re not really doing that!?
Tart #1. Why not?
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. Well, you’ll get flies stuck to your legs!
Tart #1. …flies?
Skeptical Middle-Aged Woman. Yeh, flies’ll get stuck to your legs!
Tart #1. Well, it feels great.
Tart #1 takes another dollop of the cream and puts it in her hair as everyone stares in shock.
Tart #1. It’s the new look!
Drunk Scotsman (turning to Meek Asian Man). Melhylhelylhemelhelelyhlyeylhel?
Meek Asian Man. Yes. (smiles)
Tart #2. Will you take our picture?
Random Dude #2. Sure! (takes their picture)
Tart #1 (fanning herself). I’m hot! I’m getting off this train.
Drunk Scotsman. …you’re hot?!
Everyone Except Sober Young Scotsman. Hahahaha!
Sober Young Scotsman. Oh, fuck me.
Drunk Scotsman. Melhlylehlmemhlemylemlehhlelymel!

At the end of this line of incomprehensible dialogue, without any warning or pause whatsoever, the Drunk Scotsman and Three Young Tarts all spontaneously, and in amazing unison, burst into song.

Scotsman and Tarts.
Well I would walk five hundred miles
and I would walk five hundred miles
and I would walk five hundred miles
and I would walk five hundred miles

Everyone else in the car looks at each other in amusement/horror. The train makes a stop and Bob Balaban Lookalike appears.

Bob Balaban Lookalike. I’m not getting in the middle of anything, am I?
Tart #1. No! He’s just more exciting than the usual Tube passenger. Most passengers are like

Tart #1 imitates a corpse.

Bob Balaban Lookalike. Ah, yes.
Tart #1. My legs are sore! Have you got any cream in your bag?
Bob Balaban Lookalike. Why, no, I haven’t!
Drunk Scotsman. Where yue goin’?
Tart #3. Bagels!
Tart #2. Brick Lane bagel shop.
Drunk Scotsman. Bagel! …………… TWO BAGELS! Hahahahaha!
Three Tarts. Hahahahahahaha!

The Drunk Scotsman stands up, reaches across the aisle, and shakes hands with Tart #3. Then he doesn’t let go. He continues to not let go.

Three Tarts. (giggling)
Drunk Scotsman. I would walk five hundred milesAnd I would walk five hundred miles
Tart #3. He’s not letting go!
Tart #2. It’s okay, we’re getting off at the next stop anyway.
Sober Young Scotsman. Oh, fuck me.
Drunk Scotsman. I would walk five hundred milesAnd I would walk five hundred miles
Sober Young Scotsman (loudly, trying to get anyone’s attention at all). If this train stops, he’s gonna fall on his ass.

The girls’ stop is reached.

Tart #1. Okay. (gets up)
Drunk Scotsman. And I would walk five hundred miles

Tart #3 lets go and the girls depart the train. Bob Balaban Lookalike and I take their seats. The Drunk Scotsman is still standing in the middle of the aisle, his hand outstretched

Drunk Scotsman. Bagel! I want two bagels! Bagel.

The Young Sober Scotsman walks over, grabs the Drunk literally by his belly, and pushes him back down into a seat.

Young Sober Scotsman (sitting down as well). You’re not to get up.

Long pause.

Drunk Scotsman. Makin’ love to Cecilia in the afternoon…

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Against Audio Guides

So far this year I’ve had two experiences with audio guides. They’re the handy recorded messages stored on small sound players or headsets, featuring people with stentorian voices who are only too happy to lead you around a popular tourist destination. If you haven’t actually used one yourself, you’ve surely noticed, on visiting any museum, old house, or indeed any place with tourists generally, that everyone else is sitting on benches listening to headphones.

My first encounter with audio tours this year was in Barcelona, at the mesmerizing Casa Batlló. In a blog post on that house, I wrote, “Normally audio guides stink, and this one has way too much pointless music and redundant sentences. One wonders if they thought about the fact that people would rather not look like dorks holding speakers to their ears if the audio guide is saying things like (actual quote) “Now, use your imagination and pretend this holographic portrait is Gaudí himself approaching to bid you adieu.” But this audio guide is actually interesting: if you don’t listen, you miss a lot of stuff. Each room of Casa Batlló is packed with tons of achingly brilliant detail.”

The other day I went with friends to St Paul’s Cathedral and experienced their audio tour. It wasn’t a dorky speaker you held up to your ear: it was an iPod Touch. With headphones plugged in. The Church of England is clearly financially stable.

And the tour was not so bad. It directed viewers to look at all the right places, explained how to get upstairs, and keenly admired artworks by the likes of Henry Moore. Plus there were a few audio tracks of the St Paul’s Choir.

And the narrator may have said to refrain from taking photographs. Oops

But I’m still not a fan of audio guides. They tell you what you need to know, but they make it easy to forget to feel. The friends I was with had a strategy similar to mine: we sat in the chairs at the center of the cathedral, listened to three or four audio snippets we deemed crucial (out of 19!), and then wandered about to “ooh!” and “aah!” in peace. I do appreciate learning things. But I also appreciate being able to admire human creativity at its finest with my sense of awe functioning in silence.

So I walked behind things, looked through grates, found odd angles. Inspected the ironwork and the monuments to obscure lieutenant-generals past. Left the headphones draped around my neck. Several dozen people seemed to be simply milling about in every part of the cathedral. Indeed, I would describe the average tourist experience these days as “milling.” They were tuned in to whichever chapter (“Cleaning the Cathedral”), pacing back and forth or kicking the floor gently, staring at some mosaic or other while strapped in to a three-minute discourse on whatever element of cathedral history needed unpacking.

No. Audio guides aren’t useless, but they have their place. The Barcelona guide pointed out useful and exciting details, when it wasn’t spewing absurdities about holographs. The St Paul’s guide was a decent five-minute primer on cathedral basics.

But if the guide ceases to be worth your while, turn the thing off, or hand it back in, or something. My attitude is this: I can listen to things anywhere, or read Wikipedia articles almost anywhere. But I can only actually be in St Paul’s Cathedral, when I’m in St Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing things is important in such places, probably, but feeling them is more important. And when it comes time to suck in glories, to simply stand in quiet awe, an audio guide is a distraction. They’re like menus. Once you’re tasting your meal, you don’t need to read them anymore. Once I was intoxicated by the beauty of Christopher Wren’s design and countless craftsmen’s efforts, I didn’t need to hear “click through to the next chapter” anymore. The audio guide at its best is a smart, cultured middleman, but it’s still a middleman.

It’s also probably cheaper than hiring and training a set of expert tour guides to actually tell you things in person. But you knew that already.

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London Philharmonic: Dean, Adams, Holst 23 Mar

Marin Alsop’s Wednesday program at the London Philharmonic began with two living composers: Australian Brett Dean and American John Adams. It was a fascinating look at all that is good, bad, frustrating, and transcendent about contemporary music.

The “frustrating” was Dean’s Komarov’s Fall. It sounded good. It was undoubtedly exciting and built in a nice dramatic arc. I had fun listening to it. I was afraid that the impressively energetic climax would fragment back into the same eerie “space music” effects with which the music began, but these fears were allayed.

And yet–there is really not much to music like Komarov’s Fall. I’ve heard a lot of pieces this way, by composers as varied as John Adams, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Joan Tower, Karl Blench, Patrick Clark, Ellen Zwilich, and Roberto Sierra. What kind of music is this? It’s the kind which impresses me deeply with skill at orchestration, but nothing else. These works, popular as they are, primarily function to prove that the orchestra can produce thrilling, strange, novel, and entirely new sounds. I listened to Komarov’s Fall and felt that all over again: wow! What a neat effect!

Only, in this and so many other cases, there’s little behind the neat effects. These (even quite serious works like Higdon’s blue cathedral or Adams’ Violin Concerto) strike me as the 21st century equivalent of Hungarian Rhapsodies: all about novel sounds and textures to provide the audience surface diversions. Brett Dean is undoubtedly very good; his work is the product of incredible labor and skill. Only… why? Why is it written?

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (a highlight reel from his opera about the atom bomb) answered the “why?” question with force. In fact, it answered with such compelling, unstoppable emotional intensity that I was left absolutely stunned. This was one of those listening experiences I’ll never forget, like the first time I heard Sibelius or Janáček.

It didn’t start that way. The Doctor Atomic Symphony began fast, extremely loud, and exciting, in a rather generalized way. I resolved to sit back and enjoy the aural bombardment. Only then, gradually, other moods began to percolate: a trombone solo, demanding the London Philharmonic trombonist stand up, echoed through the orchestra in interesting ways, alternating with suitably “atomic” eruptions. Eventually these began to acquire a certain sameness, founded on a minimalist (think Glass) string melody and pounding timpani.

One of these outbursts gave way to a trumpet solo, sad, tender, melodic, a bit like a cry of innocence lost. The louder driving eruption returned, angry, stern, trying to push the music back on its path. The trumpet solo continued, and suddenly one got the sense that the music had actually developed a cast of characters who were in argument with each other, and that it was genuinely conflicted about its own direction. I grew fascinated. Another interruption, defiant, was followed by the clarinet answering the trumpeter’s mournful call, as the emotional forces finally joined full battle. Here was music where something was at stake.

The trumpeter made one last lament before the whole orchestra appeared convinced of the tragedy of it all, and wound down to a subdued close. But no: one more outburst, this one final, almost identical to the others, but because of the context, it was not rude or defiant or even exciting. It was deeply tragic. The music was, in effect, hurtling itself off a cliff.

I simply had no idea this sort of emotional power existed these days, except in rather quiet, mystical pieces on the religio-choral-romantic fringe. Here was a piece that excited, that used gongs and other fun instruments, and that also drew me in to a tragic story with rich characterization and massive emotional power. Bravo!

After the interval, Holst’s Planets seemed silly in comparison. But of course, that’s the virtue of The Planets, isn’t it? It’s sly, witty, and self-effacing. You can hear Gustav Holst grinning in the background. It makes no claim to be anything other than sheer lavish entertainment. The loud bits are raucous fun, the soft bits are gorgeous, and everyone goes home happy.

Especially happy with this fine a performance. Marin Alsop, of whom I’ve written probably my most positive CD review, conducted with precision and joy through the entire program: the London Philharmonic was at the very peak of its form under her direction and every single piece seemed to be just right. Alsop’s Planets included a couple of little tempo lurches in movements like “Jupiter” which emphasized the humor. (Indeed, the famous “big tune” in “Jupiter” sounded, at this tempo, not like a sappy hymn but like a rousing Irish folk tune.) The women’s choir at the end took up one of the boxes on the right (stage left) of the auditorium for an especially spooky effect.

All in all, a great night at the symphony: made unforgettable by the fact that, at long last, I think I’ve finally found “new music” which can resonate with me as deeply and as movingly as anything from the past.

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Looking for the Magic

Roger Ebert, film critic and blogger extraordinaire, has just written a blog post called “The spheres of music,” which begins like this: “What do you think of while you listen to classical music? Do you have an education in music, and think of the composer’s strategies, or the conductor’s interpretation? Do you, in short, think in words at all? I never do, and I suppose that would make me incompetent as a music critic.”

What follows is the comment I posted on his blog in reply.

Roger, I’m a music critic, semi-pro. I cover CDs for an English site called MusicWeb, which is a great gig because our reviewers are encouraged to be a little more informal: we tell stories about the first time we heard a piece, or what it means to us, or the time when we had drinks with the composer, etc. Emotion and “response” are more of a factor in our reviews than things like “the orchestra doesn’t appropriately observe this marking in bar 163.”

Writing about music is a tough fight. There’s a sense of desecrating hallowed ground: the music was composed as music because words were useless in the first place! And yet of course listening without a guide is like hiking without a map.

What I’ve found is that the easiest reviews to write are the worst CDs. In and out, a job that feels dirty but can be done quickly. Hard to do are the “it was okay, not great but not bad,” because it’s so hard to find something to say. But the hardest, by far, are the CDs that really leave me speechless.

Of the 99 reviews I’ve done, 2 CDs were (I thought) so great as to be beyond description. The first time this happened (Bernstein’s Mass with the Baltimore Symphony [click for a sample track in iTunes file format]), I tried writing an analytical essay about what made it great. I went point-by-point, delved into some musicology, did a lot of comparative listening. It took five months to write the review.

The second time that a CD thwarted my critical faculties and left me totally without words or even thoughts, I gave up the rational approach. This was a jazzical album (Gershwin by Grofe, with the Harmonie Ensemble and 93-year-old sax player Al Gallodoro [click for sample track, this time an mp3]). It’s one of those CDs that forbids you to sit still, or indeed sit down. I couldn’t figure out what to say. “Perfect” gets old.

So I described going to a local jazz club when I was a teen, with the guys up on stage egging on each other’s solos. The days when every performer had a glass of wine to sip between tunes, when they took breaks every hour to “test the bar service,” when jazz was a refulgent old-school sharing of good tunes among improvisatory friends. I said, “this is where the CD takes me.”

“This is where the CD takes me.” [Roger,] You’re really not as far from being a music critic as you think. Good music criticism has a lot in common with good film criticism. Sure, you make sure to praise the actors, and the writer, and the things that go into making a film good. With music, the writer’s skill is usually (but not always) well-accepted, but the performers and audio engineers get their marks.

But that’s really not the heart of matter, either in film or music writing. None of your reviews are “about” the acting or even really about the movie. They’re about the state of mind the movie gives you, or the emotional response, or if you’re lucky, the celebration of just what great art can do. The “Great Movies” columns are about movies on one level, and on another they’re an ongoing discussion of how art nourishes and replenishes the human spirit, the ways art has of touching us all.

That’s what music criticism aspires to be, too. Yeah, we have to deal with problems of how to describe a melody, or a write about structure. But the secret of we music critics is that what we really want, most of all, is to be left speechless, wordless. We seek to make our own profession helpless. We want to describe music – but really, deep down, what we want is to feel the magic.

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Philharmonia: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvořák 17 Mar

Just got back from a Philharmonia concert at Royal Festival Hall. It wasn’t great, but it was pretty good, and at rate it was interesting enough to merit a write-up. The music was superb–Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, plus a bit of Mendelssohn–but the main interest revolves around conductor András Schiff, a pianist who has, over the past few years, occasionally popped up in conducting roles around Europe. And, indeed, in a few ways he’s still not totally ready to be a professional conductor.

Now, I’m no conductor myself, and have no experience on a podium. Far be it from me to criticize artists who know what they’re doing much more than I do. But some elements of Schiff’s style are a little bit amateurish.

1. Baton technique. Of course, I don’t know much about how to use a baton. But Schiff used it like no other conductor I’ve seen. Half the time, he used it to actually keep time, one-two etc., but then sometimes he would begin directing a specific section with his left hand, and then his baton hand would stop moving entirely, and the stick would just hang in midair as if it was forgetting to do something. On other occasions, he would conduct, but from waist-height. At one point in the Brahms his hands were literally at his sides, as if in pockets, while the music was playing.

2. No-baton technique. Sometimes Schiff would randomly put the stick down and conduct with his hands for a few minutes, then randomly pick it up again. This was especially weird at the end of the Dvořák Cello Concerto’s slow movement, an oasis of gorgeous calm for which he solemnly set down his baton, until he got bored and started using it again for no obvious musical reason.

3. The “loud=fast, quiet=slow” fallacy. This popped up in the scherzo of the Brahms symphony, which started off snappy and gradually cooled down as Schiff observed the spurious musical rule that loud things should be quick and soft things should be slow. Worse was the Mendelssohn Hebrides overture, which alternated between kind of heavy and pretty exciting. On the other hand, this technique actually worked at the start of the Dvořák, when an unusually hectic opening gave way to a French horn solo that felt like a warm embrace.

The Brahms Fourth Symphony was fairly slow, an attempt to be sort of warm and lovely, only this is tragic music, you could even say self-destructive music. So the violins at the opening swooned and various pauses throughout were just a hair too long. On the other hand, the slow movement was wonderful, up until the climax. Near the end there’s a moment where the full string section, acting as a choir of sorts, presents a hymn-theme plainly and beautifully. Schiff, following his aforementioned rule of thumb, figured that the real climax, emotionally, must be the loud bit for drums and horns which comes immediately after that, and only at that point did he let the Philharmonia strings give it their all. The finale avoided this temptation for softness and “the simple way out,” though, and was highlighted by a really fantastic Philharmonia flute solo.

Surprisingly, the Dvořák was another story. Here Schiff’s conducting was vigorous, energetic, and impassioned, matching the demeanor of over-the-top (in a good way!) cellist Steven Isserlis. It’s a real Celeb Lookalike duo: Isserlis looks exactly like author Steven Pinker…

They even share a hair stylist

…and, at his current age, András Schiff is starting to look like a slightly poofier-haired version of the magician Teller:

See digression below for awesome YouTube clip!

DIGRESSION: If you’re bored, what you need to do right now is check out this YouTube video of a magic trick so brilliant it fooled Teller. And the trick is pulled by a comedian, so you’re guaranteed a good time. Go on. Click.

Anyway, the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Schiff and Isserlis were perfectly matched: they both believe in an energized, impassioned, sort of hyper-romantic approach. Isserlis, of course, threw himself totally into it: stomping his feet, breathing audibly (I was in row E on the far right), occasionally sounding rough and scratchy from overexcitement, yet his softest passages are exquisite. The Philharmonia made up for some serious technical snafus in the Brahms with glorious solo work throughout, especially from the first horn in the first movement and the horn duo in the second. By the (very well-judged) ending, a couple of audience members were actually on their feet.

The audience seemed unusually ill; during the Dvořák, somebody in the back had a sneezing fit that sounded exactly like a water balloon fight.

All in all, my attitude toward the Brahms is probably “just glad to hear it live,” though the LPO is doing it with Vladimir Jurowski in May (coupling: Christian Gerhaher sings Mahler). The Dvořák was a really rousing good time, though. Steven Isserlis is the perfect concert performer: so visually arresting (all that hair flops back and forth like mad) and so caution-to-the-wind committed that he rivets your attention, even while you suspect you couldn’t stand to hear him on CD. He even threw in an encore, a 20th-century-sounding work for solo cello which was a mystery to me, but beautiful, and showcased his penchant for holding an entire auditorium rapt with attention even while playing as quietly as he could sensibly play.

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Guys and Dolls

In the blog post that went online this morning, I wrote: “a series of wacky, unrelated crimes befall a young man and the girl he loves.” Which got me wondering, when do we stop calling people boys/guys and girls, and start calling them men and women?

Given my age and the age of my friends, this will be an interesting discussion. Back when I was 13, I read “Young Adult” literature. Only now if you called us “young adults,” we’d probably look at you like you had lobsters crawling out of your ears. The truth is that we literally are young adults, but the category just feels weird.

So here’s the question: when do we stop referring to each other as boys/guys and girls and start saying men/women? Are there criteria? Do we ever do it? Is it sexist that boys seem to become men before girls become women, or that “guys” is age-neutral? Do I even want to be a “man” when I could be a “guy” instead?

Gosh, I don’t know. Somebody comment and tell me what to think.

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Reading Keeler III: The Amazing Web

Unlike the previous Harry Stephen Keeler novels I’ve discussed here (click the tab “Reading Keeler” above to see them all), The Amazing Web is notable for how close it comes to being conventionally, well, good. It is a courtroom drama, an almost unkillable genre the very structure of which makes it inherently exciting. And The Amazing Web is, indeed, almost good at it.

I say almost because, of course, Keeler can’t resist making his court scenes wildly improbable (humorous objections, one lawyer calling the other lawyer as a witness, and surprise evidence which, under law, would have been disclosed), and “wildly improbable” doesn’t even begin to describe the book’s denouement. Keeler enthusiasts, and blog readers who’ve read my previous essays on this inimitable author, will know the drill: a series of wacky, unrelated crimes befall a young man and the girl he loves, at the end of which all of the crimes are revealed to be part of one gigantic, bizarre plot, the resolution of which makes the young man so rich he can marry the girl and live happily ever after.

In this case the man is David Crosby and the girl is Lindell Trent. Crosby’s a defense attorney, Trent’s a defendant, and they fall madly in love, except Crosby’s defense consists of “pretty please don’t send her to jail for too long,” which, shockingly, doesn’t work. She vows never to forgive his weakness, and, utterly heartbroken, slinks off to Leavenworth.

Fast-forward a few years. Crosby is now a fairly successful lawyer in Chicago, saving all his money because, due to a hilarious string of weird accidents, the only clue to the newly-released Lindell Trent’s whereabouts is a handbag stuck on a desert island somewhere in the South Pacific, so Crosby wants to buy a boat and sail around the ocean until he finds the handbag. A wealthy English socialite offers him a yacht if Crosby will defend him against a murder charge. Crosby says yes.

What surprised me about The Amazing Web was that, handbag aside, the book began in the realm of faintly plausible, not-so-strange fiction. The hyperactive weirdness of Keeler’s prose is just not present at the outset, except a description of a man with “hard horny hands”; his writing style is understated and devoid of his usual exclamation marks and weird idiomatic phrases. Once we got to the first court showdown, against a prosecutor famous for wearing a blue bow-tie when he’s sure he’s going to win, I found myself actually kind of excited about the narrative!

The court scenes at the beginning of The Amazing Web are an endearing (but unusual, for Keeler) combination of pretty good humor, campy drama, and actual tension. The humor does occasionally come to the fore: “‘My first witness,’ he announced casually, ‘will be Mr. Ignatius Y. Hickey.'” And then there’s dialogue like this:

“You’re an old woman?”
“Yes, sir. Aged fifty-nine.”

Eventually, David Crosby becomes a sort of proto-Matlock, going out of his way to investigate the truth and unmask the real killer. Here Harry Stephen Keeler finally comes into his own: the final plot surprise of the novel is an absolute stunner, the product of real (if totally demented) genius. I don’t want to spoil the shock for you, because if you do read the book you will spend about ten minutes alternating between pure astonishment and uncontrollable laughter, so let’s just say the killer is not who you think it is. In fact, the killer might not even be a “who.”

As the plot builds to this joy-giving climax, Keeler’s usual warped imagination seeps in around the edges of the story. An evil bank teller pins David Crosby with a crime; the teller escapes only to run into Lindell Trent; a man from Liverpool is described as a “Cockney Englishman” (though Cockneys are from East London); Crosby asks another character, “Is this thing developing into a farce?” As if in answer, one of the next chapters is entitled, “The Lone Gladiator Girds Up His Loins.”

A side note: it is fairly well-known in the Keeler community that the author was fond of skulls, and included a skull in nearly all his novels. Few have observed that he also used safes in a similar way. Keeler seems to have been obsessed with safes, in fact. In Behind That Mask, characters search for a safe at the bottom of Lake Michigan, loaded with riches; in When Thief Meets Thief, which you can and should read for free online, the narrator is a safe-cracking expert who talks about his quarry in extravagantly weird metaphors; in the next novel I’ll be reading, The Fiddling Cracksman, a burglar breaks into homes, stands in front of their safes, and instead of opening them, serenades them on a violin. There’s a very big part for a safe in The Amazing Web, too: indeed, I daresay the safe in this book does something no safe has ever done before.

It’s easy to see the attraction of skulls. Why, though, is Keeler obsessed with safes? Possibly he is intrigued by the criminal act of breaking into them: the elements of puzzle-solving and skilled labor. Possibly he thinks of them as secret-keepers, and his characters as secrecy-thieves. Or possibly he just thinks they’re really cool. Either way, I am starting to get the impression that it’s just not a Keeler novel without a (preferably Chinese-made) safe.

All told, The Amazing Web is a fun book. What’s surprising about it is the constant tension between Keeler’s wacky instincts and the story’s genuine quality. Our lovable eccentric finally lets go of his inhibitions near the end, but before that The Amazing Web is amusing and entertaining in a non-Keeler way: as a fairly witty adventure story that winks at the reader whenever you start thinking things are getting too improbable.

Or maybe I’m just getting used to it.

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