Category Archives: Reading Keeler

Reading Keeler: I, Chameleon

It’s been a long time since I last updated my Reading Keeler series. Quick refresher: Harry Stephen Keeler is one of the most bizarre writers of all time, a pulp thriller author whose books drive past odd, and past bad, and past perverse, into a land where no adjective can describe them. I’ve previously described him has having “a stupendous imagination and a total lack of good judgment.” Others have described him as the “Ed Wood/Tommy Wiseau of world literature” or “the worst writer ever.” Which is unfair: there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Harry Stephen Keeler is sprawled across it like a big weird starfish.

So this time around the book is a two-volume epic called I, Chameleon.

The Chameleon

Original 1937 book cover to Part II of the epic

I, Chameleon is not for the beginner, or for the faint of heart. It is, frankly, bewildering. I can’t pretend to understand many of the subplot details, in particular a baffling murder mystery case in which the victim was actually somebody else, and the murderer pretended he murdered the wrong man, or something. Who knows?

The concept is a daring experiment: our narrator pretends to be somebody he’s not. In every chapter. And it’s always somebody different. The narrator is a chameleon, working through over 30 fake identities in 306 pages. What’s especially baffling is he often tells his victims. At the end of the chapter, he’ll say something like, “By the way, my name’s not really McAllister Y. Thane! I made that up! Haha!” and then just leave.

The narrator is pathologically obsessed with his fakery. At one point, he stumbles on an opportunity to steal a famous philosophy professor’s identity. So he goes to a fictional version of the University of Chicago and delivers a whole philosophy lecture to the students. Wait, that doesn’t make clear just how ridiculous this is. He takes a couple hours to give a philosophy lecture disguised as a professor, while in a race against time to turn in a criminal by midnight in exchange for a cash reward.

Yeah. The plot is this: our lying friend met a dude named Sandringham. Later he found out that Sandringham was a homicidal maniac, escaped from an insane asylum, with a $100,000 reward on his head. (In today’s money, $1.6M.) But the reward was expiring that very night!–because Sandringham was presumed dead! So the chameleon narrator must use his 30 identities to track down Sandringham and lure him back to the nuthouse.

It is in that framework that the narrator takes time off to teach a philosophy class. You have to admire his confidence. He also spends a good amount of time getting a doctor to demonstrate an operation, for wholly unrelated reasons. He also causes that same doctor to commit suicide. And causes another guy to commit suicide. And kisses a nun. And blows up a safe. And writes a humor column for the local magazine.

It’s a strange book.

Because the plot leaves you in a perpetual state of bewilderment, this is not anywhere near top-shelf Keeler. Bold, yes. Silly, yes. But it lacks the nutty appeal and easy merriment of some of the other books.

There are still interesting things. You’ll learn interesting 1930s slang words, like this list of slang for “money”: “kale, scratch, mazuma or dough.” Kale? And there’s this classic line: “I don’t need to read it! It’s graven in neatly etched letters of immortal fire upon my quivering cerebellum.” My favorite moments were when our dear author turns self-aware: at one point, as he often does in his books, he has a character say that the events unfolding are “like a dime-store novel.” Plus: “It was plain, now, that mystery-novelists were painstaking artists after all–and looked up their stuff most accurately. If only, I reflected ironically, the readers thereof knew that what they were reading was, in most instances, fact–and not fiction!”

Sure. We believe you, Harry.

I, Chameleon may not be one of the medal-winners, but I’m going to keep reading Keeler’s wacky, woeful, wonderful novels–and paying for them with my hard-earned kale.

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Reading Keeler V: The Spectacles of Mr Cagliostro

Before I began reading The Spectacles of Mr Cagliostro, one of Harry Keeler’s earliest novels, I was warned by several Keelerphiles that it not only was rather good, but genuinely scary. This is true. Yes, there are a few eccentricities here and there, but nothing like those the later books will feature, and Spectacles really does feel personal, emotional, like its author was frightened by his own material.

He had good reason. For much of the novel, Keeler writes about his own experiences, in a way; as a 20-something, he had been thrown into an Illinois insane asylum by his mother, for reasons which are strangely unknown, and there he lived the nightmare of a perfectly sane man trying to persuade his captors that he did not belong. Recent psychological studies have discovered that this problem, though not actually pervasive, is common enough to be a worry: in 1973, David Rosenhan launched a legendary experiment in which various perfectly healthy people claimed to “hear voices” and then languished in mental hospitals, waiting for somebody to realize they were actually sane. Rosenhan himself was trapped in an institution for two months.

Jerome H. Middleton, the hero of Stephen Keeler’s novel, is trapped for a shorter time than Rosenhan, but in truly harrowing circumstances. In a delicious catch-22, he is the victim of an elaborate, indeed byzantine conspiracy to make him look paranoid. He witnesses a staged meeting of assassins and is committed to an insane asylum, where one of the employees really is trying to kill him. Brilliantly, Keeler has the asylum staff reply the only way they can: “That’s exactly what they told us you’d say.”

Of course, Harry Keeler wrote a happier ending.

Jerry is like a fish trying to flop out of a tight net. Eventually, I started squirming, too. If you’re stuck in a nuthouse, how exactly do you get out? Jerry knows he’s the victim of a plot, but the plot has made him look paranoid already. Meanwhile, the schemers are about to sucker him out of his $10 million inheritance (this is 1926; after inflation, that’s $122 million).

There are a great many downright terrific scenes in the asylum. Somebody (Francis Nevins?) wrote that the scene where Jerry is strapped down for a spinal tap is the scariest, most intense moment in all of Keeler, and it is genuinely frightening. One has to conclude Keeler himself suffered this indignity and wanted to impress his readers with the horror he, too, had felt. Another great scene has Jerry finally learning the sad truth about another man in the place who appears just as sane as he is.

Best of all is the moment when Jerry sits down for a shave–in the barber’s chair of a hired killer with a nice, sharp razor blade. I would have actually gone farther than Keeler there, though: there is room for some really terrific dialogue, with sinister undertones. It would work especially well on a movie screen, the barber in a slow, leisurely walk around his new victim, asking innocuous questions (“sideburns?”) fraught with all sorts of cruel subtexts which the victim slowly begins to understand. It would be like the madhouse Sweeney Todd. There are a couple other cinematic moments, too, like when the chief conspirator lies in wait for Jerry at a boarding-house, revolver in hand, and finally hears his visitor arrive.

But of course, it wouldn’t be Keeler without some silliness. In this case, there’s an unlikely love story, and a pretty serious plotting issue, rare for Keeler: Jerry has lived in Australia all his life, yet no characters remark on his Australian accent. Weirder, nobody believes in him when the conspiracy replaces him with a double from England. In fact, a celebrated psychoanalyst named Herr Meister Doctor von Zero analyzes his dreams and decides he is from Canada!

Another absurdity is the title spectacles: a set of dark blue goggles which were allegedly once property of Cagliostro, an actual mystic (or con artist) from the 1700s. Jerry is supposed to wear them for an entire year to satisfy his father’s crazy will, although this plan is aborted when he gets thrown in the insane asylum.

Cagliostro. He must have taken the goggles off for a moment

It’s a pity that Keeler decided to forge a career writing the “spectacles” kind of story, rather than the “sane man trapped inside” kind of story. Of course, other authors did that well, and nobody else could achieve the kind of deliriously imaginative, perverse stuff Keeler did pursue. But The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro is a surprising look at Keeler the genuinely accomplished suspense writer, and Keeler the man. Forget all that stuff about goggles and loving nurses and Chicago being “the Land of Heart’s Desire,” and forget silly dialogue like “‘Do you mind speaking just a little louder, Jerry,’ Fortescue interrupted, cupping his ear with his hand. ‘I got my ears full of water in the swimming tank at the Chicago Athletic Club to-day, and you’re competing with a miniature Niagara Falls just now.'”

No, what really matters is this: how do you escape a perfectly-laid trap? If the whole world thinks you’re crazy, how do you know you’re sane? If there’s a plot to say you’re paranoid, how do you know you’re not? This is the scary, impressive meat of the book. And it’s a sign of Keeler’s fidelity to his set-up that when Jerry tries to go Shawshank and hacksaw his way to freedom, even that doesn’t work. The most strongly fortified prison is the mind.

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Reading Keeler IV: The Riddle of the Traveling Skull

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.

The new cover - and the most common entry to Keelerland.

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.

You can buy this edition from Ramble House - go on, grab a copy!

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.

Looks like a Keeler man to me!

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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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Reading Keeler II: Behind That Mask

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.”

“Bye, Yinnie-bunny!”

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’?

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Reading Keeler I: Stand By–London Calling!

In a previous post I introduced Harry Stephen Keeler, a true writer’s writer: an author of detective and adventure novels who violates every single rule of good writing ever set down. Keeler is, in my earlier words, a man with “an absolutely stupendous imagination coupled to a total lack of judgment.” But I am now in a better position to describe his work, having recently finished my first Keeler novel, Stand By–London Calling!

The book is one of the last published works of Keeler’s career, dating from 1953, after his American press had dropped him for more marketable writers. In appreciation to his London publisher, Ward Lock & Co., for continuing to back him, Keeler wrote this book as a fond tribute to the U.K. with a special plot twist requiring several chapters set in London, the “Chicago of the East.” In return, Ward Lock & Co. dropped Keeler from their roster.

Reading the novel, it’s not hard to see why this work sealed his fate. After an initial exuberantly weird handful of chapters focusing on a crusty old circus master with a diorama of a fish being executed, the feverish descriptions, coiled sentences, and absurd rhetorical flourishes which make Keeler unforgettable fade out, the author instead charging hard across 190 pages of dry landscape trying to get all his plot squeezed in. Weirdly, the plot never really builds to anything; the events, rather than forming an arc, are just a series of things happening.

To summarize: an aging circus master named Angus MacWhorter (so old he looks like an “ancient reptile”) receives an offer to sell a diorama in his circus for $1,000. He drives the price up to $3,000, even though it’s just a little box with a small fish being hanged and a tiny diorama crowd of humans watching the fish die on the scaffold. The description of the gruesome, seemingly pointless diorama is one of the highlights of the book.

Then, in an unrelated development, we discover that a brother and sister in the circus are madly in love with each other. The brother takes some “Hindu drugs” and has a dream that he was involved in a train wreck as a child, where he was separated from his real parents. If true, they’re not brother and sister and they can get married! So off the brother (named Pell Barneyfield) goes to find his birth certificate, because his birth certificate has a tiny baby footprint on it that will match his big adult footprint. At some point, it’s necessary for Pell to call London. I’ll be honest: I can’t remember why, except that he has some sort of zodiacal soul-mate whom he’s never met, and that some random servant woman in London knows the location of his birth certificate. He contacts the woman, but never the soul-mate.

Why is the soul-mate even in the story? I’m glad you asked! He is the subject of a story-within-a-novel, a longish chapter by Hazel Goodwin Keeler. That’s right: Harry’s wife. And the really wonderful discovery of Stand By–London Calling! is that Hazel Goodwin Keeler is just as bad a writer as her husband. We get some sort of preposterous business about young people and forbidden love and a car crash and before we know it, the zodiacal soul-mate guy has accidentally married a duchess in disguise! After the chapter ends, we never hear from them again. And I love the description of the car crash:

“And then the world exploded.”

That’s the sort of thing you read in Hardy Boys novels. “Joe’s world exploded… thousands of little stars danced in front of Frank’s eyes.” Except here it’s much more blunt and kind of violent. “And then the world exploded.” For a moment I thought we were going to be treated to some post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Anyway, Pell Barneyfield continues his daft quest to find his real birth certificate and match up the footprints to prove he can marry the girl. Meanwhile, the girl is getting desperate and accepts a marriage proposal from The Bad Guy, whose name is Steve “Golden-Tongued” Octigan. Steve Octigan sabotages the road Pell is supposed to take back, so he can marry the girl before she finds out she’s not Pell’s sister. The means of sabotage is an irate country bumpkin with a gun, who is prone to saying things like this: “Tarnation–hell! D’ya think ‘at we’uns air–d’y think ‘at w’en he comes to that thar fallened tree tronk, by then half-a-rolled ’round partly ‘crost th’ road–‘ith–‘ith a skinned saplin’ lyin’ keerless-like ‘longside, like could be used as a leever–an’ he climbs out to do a little leeverin’ o’ that fallened tree off fur ‘nough to git clearance to git past it–” and “Hell–f’ar!”

Luckily, Pell avoids the trap and any delirious dialogue with the country hick by crossing the river on an underwater bridge. Octigan exits the book with the following angry last lines: “You folks will always be able to tell your grandchildren ‘at you both once knew the Wickedest Man in the Universe – old Mr Devil himself!”

Old Mr Devil himself could probably conjure up a slightly more entertaining work than Stand By–London Calling!, which for all its inventive plot has some remarkably un-loony detective work and prosaic clues. Even the “reveal” of the secret meaning behind the fish being hanged is slightly boring. But the novel certainly has its pleasures, mainly in Keeler’s uniquely tortured prose. Consider this description of an unlikely event, which is the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter: “Is the identical chance that a snowball, cooked in a nice hot oven, has of coming out browned on one side–and oozing delicious juice on the other. Figure it out yourself!”

Yes, Keeler wants us to figure it out ourselves. I was speechless.

I’ve recently finished my second Keeler novel, and it was far more amusing. Indeed, I frequently broke out into the kind of really painful silent laughter you have when you’re in a library and don’t want to disturb the people around you. Write-up coming soon. Here’s a teaser:

“It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.”

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