The candy-salesman hero of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull might be describing his creator’s peculiar allure—and the cravings of the Harry Stephen Keeler cult—when he refers to his company’s latest product as “a new and weird and engaging candy flavor that caused every tongue over which it trickled to hang out for more, more, more!” Keeler (1890–1967) published nearly 70 mystery novels, most between 1924 and 1942, and was largely unheralded in his lifetime, save for the occasional head-scratch from a daily reviewer. But that’s changed over the past three decades. Today he’s a minor sensation, with an appreciable following and numerous reprints; copies of his more obscure titles go for hundreds on eBay.
Aficionados adore Keeler for (a) his prose style, which springs jacks of hyperbole and surrealism from the whodunit’s musty Edwardian box; and (b) his “web-work” plotting, which often surpasses the Illuminatus! trilogy for sheer lunatic, self-justifying intricacy. “Keeler does everything you are never supposed to do as a novelist,” writes editor (and Voice contributor) Paul Collins, apropos of (a), in his introduction to this snappy new reprint from the Collins Library. As to (b), “Keeler takes the implicit absurdity of the mystery [genre] and makes it explicit.” Sober admirers of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and their upper-middlebrow ilk might challenge Collins’s assumption of the form’s “absurdity.” And anyway, what’s unquestionable—and lovable—about Keeler is that he makes his own absurdity so explicit.
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, first published in 1934, begins when our hero, Clay Calthorpe, inadvertently gains possession of a satchel containing a human skull. The skull has several unusual features: a metal disc bearing numbers and a name, paper stuffing scrawled with sentence fragments, a bullet hole, and a bullet. In seeking the skull’s provenance, Calthorpe ranges over the burgeoning expanse and social strata of Chicago (“that strange London of the West,” he calls it), meanwhile detailing characters like Philodexter Maxellus, Ichabod Chang, and Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel.
Keeler famously systematized his principles of narration and character motivation in a multi-part article entitled “The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction” (1928). Sample: “It should be evident that in many cases the motiving of a desired incident with respect to that participant in it who is not fixed by the exigencies of the required plot, can and does form part of the motivation for the fixed participant.” Skull may represent a later evolution of such theories, as its action functions more on the helter-skelter principle. Which was far from unusual in the pop novel of Keeler’s day: His plotting is actually not much more Byzantine than, say, John Buchan’s, or his commitment to plausible motivation more marginal than that of Earl Derr Biggers. Improbable yarns and exotic personages, too, were the popular standard in the reign of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.
As a plotter, Keeler mainly lacks a sense of distribution. Rather than apportioning greater weight to scenes with key value, Skull features protracted pursuits of hunches that don’t pan out, elaborate expositions of eventualities that don’t occur. There are enough MacGuffins to smother Hitchcock, enough coincidences to render Dickens a chaos theorist. Keeler doesn’t always trouble himself to plant essential information early, so that its climactic reappearance will ring both surprising and true: Repeatedly, the rational impossibilities engendered by his own perfervid plotting are simply neutralized by an expedient invention. It can’t have been so difficult for Keeler to construct his web-work plots when he knew any dangling strand could be secured, come crunch time, to an explanation conjured on the spot.
Then there’s the racism. Francis M. Nevins, whose 1969 serial study in The Journal of Popular Culture sparked Keeler’s rediscovery, thought the author “hated racism deeply, but refused to be solemn about the subject and insisted on his right to express himself in a way that could be misinterpreted.” Richard Polt, founder of the Harry Keeler Society, has written a more recent defense on the same lines. Both argue that the totality of Keeler’s work ameliorates individual cases, some of which they admit are nonetheless loathsome. Skull is one of those cases: At the very least, it is deformed as entertainment by the insistent (therefore purposive) use of such charming locutions as “Cockney bastard,” “stinking Chink,” “confounded Mick,” and “moron negro.” Scarcely three pages pass without some malodorous slur; in the concluding chapters, the Chinese and Germans are hit especially hard. Some Keeler novels are explicitly anti-racist, others merely ambivalent about otherness. But gauged on its extremes, Keeler-mania would seem to depend partly on one’s willingness to inhabit a universe in which Anglo-Saxon bravehearts are alternately aided or assaulted by a succes-sion of pidgin-speaking ethnics.
But that’s scarcely all there is inside this Skull—the novel, or Keeler’s cranium. The book is full to bursting with woolly characters, stupefying style, and narrative so convoluted as to be self-consuming. There are addled adverbs (“friendlily,” “troubledly”) and silly similes (“like a drunken mule with elephants’ feet grafted onto his ankles”); oafish constructions (“my own last only chance”) and oddball gangsterisms (“muffed his stunt”); antique phrases (“microscopical,” “spirituelle”) and touching homilies (“People change, as well as styles in dogs”). Exclamation points abound, not only as sentence-enders (“And it was a bullet!”) but as chapter-starters (“Filkins the Poet!”). The first-person voice is alternately loquacious and halting: A period will fall onto the page out of nowhere, more or less arbitrarily. In the middle of a sentence. To break it up. Into two fragments. Or three. Or more! It’s as if both peripatetic hero and indefatigable author were gasping between wind sprints.
Pixilation enlivens and estranges the dialogue—vide this exchange between the hero, recently beaned from behind, and some Irish cops:
“The minute I went up the steps of No. 1870, and tried to grope around in the vestibule for a push button, the house fell on my head and I traveled through space with the square root of minus one—” “What’s that?”
“That’s the speed of light, according to Einstein,” said the other of the plainclothesmen. “He’s persiflageous, Sarge!”
In the manner of the broken clock that’s correct twice a day, Keeler will here and there fashion a passage, or merely an aperçu, that is actually, conventionally good. Like the narrator’s sketch of a suburban housing development, “with small one-story bungalows laid around within it, and little toy garages with red-tiled roofs in back of each. A single combined driveway and entrance for all the natives to get in. Or to get out.” Or his coining of piquant names for imaginary periodicals, such as Hearstmopolitan and Literary Regurgitation. Or his suggestion to a lam-considering criminal that “Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin.”
In life and death, Keeler has borne his critics’ attacks—the latest being a piece in the December 21 New York Sun by Mysterious Bookshop owner Otto Penzler that is less a hatchet job than a series of shallow pinpricks. (“Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health,” Penzler writes, in what is ostensibly a review of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull but overall evidences greater familiarity with the McSweeney’s press release than with the novel itself.) Indeed, there are sound reasons for disliking Keeler’s work. But mediocrity is not among them. Unlike the cults around, say, Ed Wood or Eisenhower-era lounge music—the fetishizing of dullness, the caressing of a void—Keeler’s is a cult of the wildly overcreative, the sincerely, bountifully bizarre.
In the words of Skull‘s Teutonic neurosurgeon, “Life! What a tangle it is, isn’t it! Gott! People—objects—all bound together—in all sorts of odd relationships!” That’s Harry Stephen, whether you get him whole, halfway, or not at all. But for those willing to look past the racism—a challenge—Keeler is a home-brewed hallucinogen, the literary equivalent of the quackish medical compounds and energy elixirs once peddled by tent and wagon in those dark decades before the all-night infomercial. He had a bent of brain and twist of pen that make him an acquired but irreplaceable taste—not Electric Kool-Aid, but its ancestral counterpart, its Depression-bred grandfather: Voltaic Yoo-Hoo, perhaps.
Devin McKinney, author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard), writes a music column for The American Prospect online (prospect.org).