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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