The fourth part of my ongoing series of Keeler novel essays was slated to cover the little-known book The Fiddling Cracksman, a tale involving a burglar who plays violin music in front of safes. But alas: midway through my traversal, the British Library shipped it, without asking, off to a storage facility in Yorkshire. I was left with the only Keeler novel left in their London collection–The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, coincidentally written in exactly the same year as Fiddling Cracksman, 1934. Riddle is the most famous of Keeler’s novels, because it was published a few years ago by McSweeney’s and, therefore, briefly circulated amid the kind of literary circles which read McSweeney’s and write book reviews for alternative newspapers. It’s therefore the point of entry for the few readers Keeler gets.
It’s not hard to see why. The Riddle of the Traveling Skull has the two salient traits which make HSK a great read: baffling prose and a truly mind-blowingly bizarre plot that resolves in a respendently weird fashion. It also features nearly every Keelerian trope, trait and McGuffin: a young couple in love, a weird hurdle in the way of their marriage, a murder, crucial plot points involving a skull and a safe, obscure technical discourse, circus freaks, outrageous accents, a hare-brained business scheme, reference to Chicago as the London of the West, and an obsession with Cockney slang.
To wit: the young couple are Clay Calthorpe and Doris Pelton, the weird hurdle is that Doris’ father feels threatened by a misplaced bag on a tram car, there are one or maybe two or maybe zero murders, the safe belongs to a dead priest, the obscure technical discourse is about brain surgery, the circus freak is a Human Spider, the outrageous accent belongs to a German train conductor (“you unt dot odder chentleman vot vass sid next you, vass climb back in–I see two bags unter dot zeat. Dot iss, ven I vass go to flop dot next zeatback ofer, see?”), the business scheme belongs to a young woman who sues men she claims have proposed to her, and the Cockney character is a private detective named Milo Payne who, of course, wears a Sherlock Holmes hat everywhere he goes. (Harry Stephen Keeler seems unaware that Sherlock never did wear one of those trademark hats in a Doyle story.)
As for the skull: well, it gets found in a traveling bag by our hero Clay Calthorpe. It’s perfectly cleaned up and polished, stuffed full of slivers of paper which turn out to be a love sonnet cut up into little bits. The back of the skull has a big silver plate with some letters and numbers, and underneath that a nice little bullet hole. Oh, and inside the cranium lies, nestled in sonnet-bits, the bullet.
The task of protagonist Clay is to identify the skull, overcome his future father-in-law’s unwillingness to let the marriage proceed, and, since it wouldn’t be a Keeler novel without some bizarre subplots, identify the mysterious Brit Milo Payne, track down sonnet author Abigail Sprigge, and work out why he is being followed by a Chinese hit man named Ichabod Chang.
I have a few in-depth thoughts about Traveling Skull, but let’s clear the “review” bit out of the way first. This really is a great introduction to Keeler, because, as mentioned, it has all his hallmarks. Page 3 contains maybe the single most celebrated sentence in Keeler’s oeuvre (because so few people get past page 3!): “For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlock-holmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of–in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel–or Suing Sophie!”
There’s glorious prose elsewhere, too. Clay and Milo refer to the skull as “Mr. Skull.” A policeman exclaims, “He’s persiflageous, Sarge!” And check out how Clay, who works at a candy factory, describes kissing his girlfriend: “Sweet that kiss, like our butter-cream-center bar. And blonde she was, like our Crispo Taffy. With eyes as blue as jelly bean No. 18–which goes in the jelly bean mixture No. 9. Dressed all in pink silk, as pink and as crisp as our Silko-Spun Crunch.”
As for the reading experience: I can honestly report that the final plot twist generates a sensation which I’ve never felt anywhere else. The culprit’s identity is predictable, even old-fashioned: it adheres to the ancient dicta that long-missing people will always return and the least likely suspect is always guilty. I knew who it would be. And yet I was stunned, shocked, outraged, amazed all at once, like I never have been by Agatha Christie, the final page (the final sentence!) provoking in me a physical reaction: a sudden rush of excitement, a crippling but simultaneously thrilling brain-cramp, a little Technicolor cloud of wonderments. Read Keeler, folks. It’s incomparable.
For the already-converted, a few deeper thoughts:
1. As so often, Keeler is a true writer’s writer. At one point, Clay says, “Why me no whys, as Shakespeare said.” Of course, Shakespeare never said that, but a fellow pulp author, Faith Baldwin, had written it in Skyscraper three years earlier. Later, Donald Barthelme of all people picked up the phrase, too. Elsewhere, we get a hint of the wry self-parody that makes Keeler so intriguing: “This whole affair is so much of a nickel novel already, that we might as well write the finishing touch to it.” At points like this, I start to wonder just how much of Keeler is madness and how much is cunning.
2. It has become a very common thing to remark on Harry Keeler’s obsession with skulls. Everyone mentions it in their introductions to Keelerland. But I’m not sure I buy it. Skulls do appear in most of his works, but this is the first time in my reading that a skull has been memorable. It seems possible to me that, because Traveling Skull is his most famous and best-known novel, and The Skull in the Box one of his biggest, the skull trope simply gets the most publicity. Certainly there are a clutch of other Keeler quirks: seemingly every novel involves a “Cockney” Englishman (some from Liverpool!) and the five novels I’ve finished or started upon have all prominently featured safecracking. Possibly safes are less remarked-upon in Keeler studies (such as they are) because Riddle of the Traveling Skull, the best-known book, also has one of the smallest parts for its safe.
3. Near the end of the novel, a character delivers a soliloquy as dramatic and affecting as any passage of Keeler I’ve ever read. I mean, it’s actually impressive. It’s also very much indebted to a Russian mystical philosopher named P.D. Ouspensky. Has any work been undertaken (say, in the Keeler News) discussing Keeler’s reading of or debt to Ouspensky? The thinker’s Wikipedia page is intriguing–he’s exactly the kind of oddball, occultish, hocus-pocus fellow who would appeal to our author. At any rate, if there’s no existing discussion of the Keeler-Ouspensky connection, I’d volunteer to start it.