Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Real Keeler news!

"We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy."
The New York Times, 1942

I've written about the mystery novelist Harry Stephen Keeler before—both on The Dizzies and in the Voice and for that exemplary fanatical journal known as the Keeler News—but I don't think I've yet mentioned that the Collins Library (an imprint of McSweeney's) has brought out The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, arguably HSK's best single-volume novel.* The CL edition is a handsome clothbound specimen, and the clean paper will not make you wheeze (a common side effect from vintage Keelers, ca. the '30s and '40s).

There's no better place to start. It's a wildly entertaining book, full of plot pyrotechnics, bravura dialect, and truly enjoyable (and nicely integrated) bits of whimsy. (My favorite: a can't-fail business scheme for a poetry journal.)

It also contains what might be Keeler's most famous sentence. Stylistically, it's not entirely typical of his prose, but it does convey his trademark enthusiasm (and knack for addictively oddball nomenclature):

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 Sherlockholmsian 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 Kratzenschneiderwümpel—or Suing Sophie!

Skull is clearly not your average whodunit—mystery fans with a sense of humor will enjoy it, and non-gumshoe aficionados (i.e., the rest of us) who like surprises will be delighted. And for you lit'ry eggheads—say, adherents of the sort of prose adventurism espoused by the Oulipo—this is the perfect introduction to an avant-garde stylist working (miraculously successfully, for many years) within the constraints of popular fiction. (From the late '20s to the early '40s, Keeler was published in the U.S. by Dutton.) I admit to having some (non-financial) interest in the success of the book—I urged that most companionable of literary investigators, Paul Collins, to try a Keeler, and knew I'd found a kindred soul when he started snapping 'em up on eBay.

There's (clearly!) much more I could say about Keeler—hopefully I will, in a full-fledged article someday. For now I'll just say—I envy those encountering the great HSK for the first time!


*I say "single-volume," because some of Keeler's books, while complete (and enjoyable) in themselves, constitute brilliant sequences in which (e.g.) the solution to a single crime will be different in each book. The most dazzling example of this is the Marceau series (The Marceau Case; X. Jones—of Scotland Yard; The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne; Y. Cheung, Business Detective)—which also intersects briefly his two-part tour-de-force, The Mysterious Mr. I/The Chameleon. This massive six-book apparatus (all of it published between 1936 and 1939!) constitutes the centerpiece of Keeleriana.

Also worth checking out: His "Big River" trilogy (Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb [what a title!], Cleopatra's Tears, and The Bottle With the Green Wax Seal) and his numerous novels (e.g., The Peacock Fan) in which a book of Chinese wisdom, entitled The Way Out, helps the protagonist prevail. (Entries in the "Way Out" series aren't as tightly linked.)


Blogger Jenny Davidson said...

Oh, I can't wait to read this--I just ordered it from Amazon the other day, I was getting all my xmas presents & decided to stick in something just for myself as well...--thanks for the original tip.

9:02 PM  

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