International Man of Mystery | Essay | Chicago Reader

International Man of Mystery 

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Since Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern mystery story in 1841, everyone from Nobel Prize winners to functional illiterates have tried their hands at the form, creating everything from brilliant literature to unreadable tripe. But few stories have even remotely resembled the works of Harry Stephen Keeler. In his 50-odd--make that quite odd--mysteries, the Chicagoan created a hysterical alternate universe full of eccentric characters, peculiar events, and seemingly random insanity. He's been out of print in English since 1953, but a small, growing cult preserves the memory of Keeler, the most bizarre mystery writer of all time.

Keeler's style was idiosyncratic, occasionally incomprehensible, and often idiomatic to the point of idiocy. One character is described as having "an eternal bump of investigative fervor, if not a downright hypertrophied curiosity," and everyone is always doing things "A to Izzard." His books feature lengthy digressions on crackpot philosophy and pseudoscience and pages of unintelligible, wretchedly inauthentic, phonetically rendered ethnic dialogue that confounds even his staunchest supporters. His characters are pure cardboard, with plenty of derogatory racial and ethnic stereotypes (though Keeler, a Fabian socialist, was apparently mocking American attitudes). Except for the verisimilitude of his frequent asylum scenes, mood and atmosphere are conspicuous only by their absence. When one of his foremost champions, mystery critic and writer Francis M. Nevins Jr., was asked if Keeler had influenced him, he replied, "I hope not."

But aficionados read the master for plot. Keeler novels weave together a dozen or more disparate strands into a gloriously goofy tapestry. He embraced deus ex machinas, deploying transparent narrative devices to keep things moving along bizarre tangents. His rickety dramatic labyrinths are held together by fantastic accumulations of weird wills, lunatic laws, crazy contracts, asinine oaths, and some of the most outrageous multilayered interlocking coincidences ever devised. The mystery is resolved by an exquisitely unreal solution assembled with all the wacky ingenuity of a Rube Goldberg device. If one can adopt an appropriately offbeat frame of reference, the pleasures of Keeler are sublime.

The standard Keeler novel opens with the squeaky-clean protagonist (invariably thrifty, reverent, brave, ambitious, and penniless) caught in some pickle that makes a catch-22 pale by comparison. His creditors are baying at the door, with his enemies not far behind. He may be the unwitting victim of a nefarious capitalist plot to foreclose on his mortgage, steal his inheritance, or defraud him of his patent. Through a bizarre chain of coincidences he finds himself implicated in some crime. His alibi is worthless, his witnesses dead, abroad, or otherwise incommunicado. He's deeply in love, but his fiancee can never simply tie the knot; she's pledged to stay single until some rare book is procured or a one-act vaudeville play produced. He may be the beneficiary of a will, but he has to do something strange, like wear a pair of weird glasses for a year or decipher the meaning of a bag of beans, before he can collect his inheritance. And then chaos ensues, as the hero and various minor characters careen about town like pinballs trying to untangle the twisted web. Subplots might involve weird curios, circus freaks, concealed identities, trepanation, and mysterious (but not sinister!) Chinese laundries. It's pure pulp fiction, but zanily transformed as if it's gone through the looking glass once too often.

Keeler was that rare bird, the unaffected yet totally self-aware eccentric. He's often pigeonholed with Z-movie director Ed Wood; the two share a wacky appeal. But whereas Wood achieved his most memorable effects unintentionally, Keeler put considerable thought into his books. It's easy to picture the man sitting at his typewriter, chuckling madly as he concocted even goofier plot twists.

Keeler was born in Chicago in 1890 and lived in the city virtually all his life. Most of his stories were set in his native city, which he passionately described as the "London of the West," and he filled his books with local color, all the way down to streetcar directions. The action bounces all over town, from the Loop to Chinatown, Bughouse Square, and Goose Island. He grew up at 740 N. State; his father died when Keeler was five, and his mother converted their home into a theatrical boardinghouse, which exposed the young Keeler to a steady stream of eccentric characters. Stepfathers changed almost as often as the roomers; Keeler's mother had a knack for marrying the short-lived and wound up burying three more husbands.

Keeler wasn't particularly stable. When he was 20 his mother committed him to an asylum for a year or so, for vague reasons, and the experience forever embittered him against the mental health profession. In later years the mere mention of psychiatry was enough to send him into a rant. In his novels sane people were frequently thrown into asylums, where their protestations would earn them diagnoses like "autohypnotic pseudoparanoia."

After being released from the asylum, Keeler picked up a degree in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology (then the Armour Institute of Technology). He worked as an electrician in a steel mill, but evenings and weekends he began pecking out short stories and serials. The pulp magazines of the teens and 20s were a far cry from their bloodcurdling counterparts in the 30s and 40s: Keeler's stories were mannered in style but outrageous in plot. His works were well received; one magazine, the Chicago-based 10 Story Book, thought highly enough of him to hire him as editor, and he remained at the helm until the magazine folded in 1940. His first book, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows, came out in England in 1924. Several more Keeler titles appeared in Britain before he finally cracked the U.S. market with Find the Clock in 1927.

Keeler was fascinated by The Arabian Nights, and many of his early novels followed its format of a few characters engaging in a weird storytelling contest. This enabled him to assemble a book out of little more than a framing sequence, a few of his pulp stories, and some paste. In his most successful book, Sing Sing Nights (1928), three assassins are, unbeknownst to each other, all hiding in the room of their intended victim. As Nevins notes, this sort of thing "happens every few pages in a Keeler novel, and anyone who can't see a certain loony beauty in it is not the reader Keeler requires." When the smoke clears the victim is dead of only two bullet wounds. Since none of the trio will admit to holding his fire and ballistics is an unknown science in the Keelerian universe, all three are convicted of murder. The night before the execution, the warden makes a sporting proposition: he'll arrange a pardon for the man who can tell the most interesting story. Each of the prisoners spins a pure Keelerian tale, revolving around gimmicks like two men showing up at a costume party in identical moth suits, a mysterious set of ancient Chinese coins, and some poor fellow whose brain is transplanted into a gorilla.

In Thieves' Nights (1929) the protagonist picks up a manuscript, and the story he begins reading--which takes up about 40 percent of the book--is about a man entertaining the governor with a series of stories about "Bayard DeLancy, the King of Thieves." That's three, count 'em, three levels of narration. It's easy to forget that you're actually reading a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. When the action finally returns to the protagonist in the outermost level of the story (who's involved in a wacky imposture plot triggered by a weird will), the effect is startling. Then who should walk into the outer circle of the story but Bayard DeLancy himself!

Keeler's novels abound with such literary tomfoolery. When a character picks up a magazine to read a story, Keeler obligingly inserts one of his recycled pulp tales, regardless of its irrelevance. Every once in a while his characters will discuss the latest book by "that author fellow," Harry Stephen Keeler. In a supreme act of self-reflexiveness, Keeler managed to work a photo of himself into X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936) as an illustration. Keeler was probably just trying to be outre, but in many ways he anticipated postmodernism. Keeler scholars are diligently trying to establish a link between the master and Thomas Pynchon.

Most of Keeler's novels fall into the category of "web-work," a subgenre he invented and christened and of which he was apparently the sole practitioner. According to legend, Keeler started a web-work novel by randomly plucking a dozen or so newspaper clippings from his files and using these events, no matter how disparate, as "nodes" in his plot. This is certainly consistent with the Keelerian spirit but probably not with the reality. The incidents his plots revolve around--a thief stealing the face, and only the face, from a surrealistic painting; a burglar breaking into homes to play a violin in front of the safe; a disgruntled phone company employee calling up every adult male in Minneapolis--are simply too strange to have originated anywhere but the slightly cracked cerebellum of Keeler himself.

One of his earliest fully conceived web-works is appropriately titled The Amazing Web (1930). The major action revolves around a young lawyer's efforts to win a case. He needs the fees to buy a boat so he can search every desert island in the South Pacific; his beloved has fled to Australia and assumed a new identity, and the only clue to her new name is in her purse, which was snatched by a man who was later marooned on an unnamed island. Somehow Keeler manages to interweave this with more than a dozen equally outlandish strands, not the least of which has a mysterious man hiring a cyclist to perform a "double loopless loop-the-loop" for 1,200 men carrying empty suitcases.

Keeler described his technique in a lengthy essay called "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction." It reads suspiciously like an advanced engineering textbook, complete with bewildering diagrams and intricate, detailed analyses of such unique Keelerian structural devices as the "triplicity incident" and the "quadrangular polygon." As an exercise he dissects his first novel, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows, in a foldout diagram showing no fewer than 18 strands woven together in a fantastic pattern, intersecting at cryptic incidents like "Wicks forwards to New Orleans a cryptic deuce of spades with Chinese writing on it" and "Ng Yat, mastering Yeng San, wins his way by the game to becoming the Rockerfeller [sic] of the Orient." Fortunately for American literature, the essay languishes in obscurity.

Keeler's literary fortunes peaked in the 30s, when he burst past the confines of the web-work novel to create what he called "meganovels." First came massive works like The Matilda Hunter Murder (1930, 741 pages) and The Box From Japan (1932, 765 pages). The latter, running about 360,000 words, is the longest single-volume mystery novel ever published in English; Keeler happily described it as "perfectly adapted to jack up a truck with." He preferred to run a continuous roll of paper through his typewriter so he wouldn't have to stop writing to insert a fresh sheet. Eventually Keeler turned to multivolume epics, madcap masterpieces spanning as many as five books, wherein he achieved the acme of his nutty art. "The Aeronautic Baby Strangler Case" takes up The Marceau Case (1936) and X. Jones of Scotland Yard, but tangents pop up in three other novels. Eccentric millionaire Andre Marceau is found garroted in the center of a freshly rolled croquet lawn. Childlike footprints are found near the corpse, but they don't reach the edge of the lawn--as if their maker vanished into thin air! A mysterious autogiro (a primitive ancestor of the helicopter) is spotted hovering over the lawn at the time of the murder.

Multiple mazes unfold as various parties--a private detective with a private agenda, a scoop-minded American newspaper syndicate, an eccentric Scotland Yard inspector applying a weird crime-solving technique based on a four-dimensional space-time continuum--rush to solve the case. Red herrings abound as solution after solution is proposed, each more absurd and yet more logical than the previous one. Particularly delicious is the introduction of the Astro-Extensionists. The trail of one suspect ends in a New Zealand farmhouse where he lived years ago. But the current tenant happens to belong to the Astro-Extensionist Church. As Keeler explains in detail, the church believes that a person's soul is the aggregate of his actions and possessions, so Astro-Extensionists carefully preserve any items left behind by an old tenant lest they destroy part of the previous occupant's soul. The suspect left behind but one item: a half-burned envelope that links him to a troupe of Japanese aerialists, all of whom were wiped out when their native island sank into the sea during an earthquake. The case is all but solved!

In many ways Keeler seemed to be mocking the conventions of the mystery genre. He lampooned the art of deduction and was manifestly unfair to the reader. One book devotes some 40 pages to a murder mystery's elaborate solution, with the detective deducing the suspects' names using little more than a circled date on the dead man's calendar, yet his impeccable reasoning collapses when someone points out that the marked date is in fact the deadline for the victim's tontine payment. Ultimately a half-wit playing hawkshaw discovers that the murder really was a case of accidental death. One of Keeler's publishers started inserting notices in his books, sometimes hundreds of pages from the end, announcing, "At this point all the necessary characters and clues have been presented to make it possible for you to determine the guilty person." It must have made tricks like introducing the killer in the final chapter all the sweeter.

The 20s and 30s were Keeler's golden age. Major publishers in both the United States and Great Britain put out his books. First editions were often followed by reprints and cheap "popular price" hardback editions, the paperbacks of the day. He was reviewed widely and often. Befuddled though they might have been, critics usually gave him positive notices. The Times Literary Supplement devoted the same attention to a new Keeler as to a new Agatha Christie, praising him for his "extremely complicated and highly ingenious narrative." (On the negative side, the New York Times accused him of writing his novels in "Choctaw.") Esteemed mystery critic Anthony Boucher, a loyal Keelerite, probably summed it up best: "His fabulous fertility could make Keeler the greatest writer in the business--if only he could write." Monogram even made a few films based very loosely on Sing Sing Nights, Keeler's most commercially successful title; one, The Mysterious Mr. Wong, starred Bela Lugosi. (Ironically, videocassettes of these films are the most accessible items in the Keeler canon today.)

But his fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse in the 40s. E.P. Dutton, his American publisher, dropped him. (In one of his last Dutton novels, 1941's The Peacock Fan, an evil publisher conspires to have an innocent author executed.) The only American publisher Keeler could find after that was Phoenix Press, a small outfit specializing in cheap genre fiction for the rental libraries that then dotted the country. It was the literary equivalent of going from major theatrical releases to the straight-to-video market.

In 1948 Phoenix Press dropped him, leaving Keeler without a publisher in his native land. Just as the British publishers had picked up on him first, so they stuck with him after America had forsaken him. But even the British were losing their taste for Keeler. His last book published in Britain, Stand By--London Calling!, came out in 1953. Since then, Keeler has been totally out of print in English.

For most authors this would have been the end. But during Keeler's salad days, he'd been translated into a least a dozen languages, and for some odd reason his books were still selling on the Iberian Peninsula. He kept churning out books, which were translated directly into Spanish and/or Portuguese. At least ten novels appeared only in Spanish, and another four were available only in Portuguese. According to bilingual Keeler collectors, titles like The Man Who Changed His Skin and The Case of the Transparent Nude showed that Keeler hadn't lost his touch. Even after those markets dried up, Keeler kept working, totally forgotten but convinced that he'd be rediscovered. When he died in 1967, he left behind some 1.3 million unpublished words, which from all reports live up to his bizarre standards.

Today a small cult of Keeler fans preserves his memory through the Harry Stephen Keeler Society, its lively newsletter, the "Keeler News," and various Web pages; two of the best are author William Poundstone's (users.aol.com/ bigsecrets/Keeler/index.html) and former University of Chicago graduate student Richard Polt's (xavier.xu.edu/-polt/keeler.html). Many of his later novels are rare, but his classics from the 20s and 30s still pop up in specialty mystery bookstores for prices that are rapidly becoming unreasonable. It should be only a matter of time before some daring publisher takes the plunge and revives his work. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the air, Raymond Scott CDs in the record stores, and Ed Wood biopics playing in multiplexes, America may be ready for Keeler.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Polt.

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