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Harry Stephen Keeler Locked Room

keelerBorn in Chicago in 1890, Harry Stephen Keeler spent his childhood exclusively in this city, which was so beloved by the author that a large number of his works took place in and around it. In many of his novels, Keeler refers to Chicago as “the London of the west.” The expression is explained in the opening of Thieves’ Nights (1929): “Here … were seemingly the same hawkers … selling the same goods … here too was the confusion, the babble of tongues of many lands, the restless, shoving throng containing faces and features of a thousand racial castes, and last but not least, here on Halsted and Maxwell streets, Chicago, were the same dirt, flying bits of torn paper, and confusion that graced the junction of Middlesex and Whitechapel High streets far across the globe.”

Other locales for Keeler novels include New Orleans and New York. In his later works, Keeler’s settings are often more generic such as Big River, or a city in which all buildings and streets are either nameless or fictional. Keeler is known to have visited London at least once, but his occasional depictions of British characters are consistently implausible.

Keeler’s mother was a widow several times over who operated a boarding house popular with theatrical performers. Beginning around age sixteen, Keeler wrote a steady stream of original short stories and serials that were subsequently published in many small pulp magazines of the day. He attended the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology), graduating with a degree in electrical engineering.

When Keeler was about twenty, his mother committed him to an insane asylum for reasons unknown, thus fostering his interest in the insane, insane asylums and the sane who had been committed to such places, as well as a lifelong violent antipathy towards the psychiatric profession.

After graduation, he took a job as an electrician in a steel mill, working by day and writing by night. One of Keeler’s early works was the science fiction story “John Jones’ Dollar”, about a dollar invested, which grows to a vast sum due to compound interest over thousands of years.  It was at this time that Keeler met his future wife, Hazel Goodwin, whom he married in 1919.

His first four novels were originally released in England by Hutchinson, beginning in 1924 with ‘The Voice of the Seven Sparrows’. E.P. Dutton later began publication in the US in 1927. ‘The Voice of the Seven Sparrows’ introduced audiences the world over to Keeler’s complicated “webwork” story lines with wildly improbable in-story coincidences and sometimes sheerly baffling conclusions. Keeler’s complex, labyrinthine stories mostly alienated his intended reading audience. Keeler’s relations with the Duttons also grew increasingly erratic and strained as his novels grew increasingly longer and correspondingly less and less popular. His 1941 novel ‘The Peacock Fan’ appears to take a dig at the Duttons through a pair of faintly disguised characters, and in 1942 after releasing ‘The Book with the Orange Leaves’ he was finally dropped by Dutton, although Ward Lock continued to issue his books in the United Kingdom until 1953.

Because of his initial popularity with Dutton, Keeler began to gain some notoriety in the mid-1930s as a purveyor of new and original stories. His popularity peaked when his book ‘Sing Sing Nights’ was used to “suggest” two different low-budget mystery/adventure films, ‘Sing Sing Nights’ (Monogram Pictures, 1933) and ‘The Mysterious Mr. Wong’ (Monogram, 1935), the latter of which starred screen legend Bela Lugosi. During this period Keeler was employed as an editor for Ten Story Book, a popular pulp short-story magazine that also included photos of nude and scantily clad young women. Keeler proceeded to fill the spaces between the stories with his own peculiar brand of humor, as well as illustrations by his wife. (He also included frequent publicity for his own books.)

In his later career, Keeler’s fiction and writing style grew increasingly bizarre, often substituting laboriously lengthy dialogues and diatribes between characters for action or plot. These years were difficult for Keeler, as his writing drifted even further beyond the norm and short stories written by his wife (a moderately successful writer herself) were found increasingly within his novels. Keeler typically padded the length of his novels with the following device: his protagonist would find a magazine or book, would open it randomly and discover a story. At this point, Keeler’s novel would stop dead in its tracks and he would insert the complete verbatim text of one of his wife’s short stories, this being the story his novel’s protagonist was reading. At the end of the story, the novel would continue where it left off, several pages nearer to its contractual minimum word count. These stories-within-the-novel typically contained only a few scraps of information relevant to the novel in which they were framed.

Hazel died in 1960, but Keeler remarried in 1963 (to his onetime secretary Thelma Rinaldo), which rejuvenated his spirit for writing. Unfortunately, many of the new stories written by Keeler during this time went unpublished, including the relatively infamous The Scarlet Mummy. Keeler died in Chicago four years later, in 1967.

In 2005, The Collins Library republished Keeler’s 1934 classic, ‘The Riddle of the Traveling Skull’, a project much pursued by writer and publisher Paul Collins.

Most of Keeler’s novels feature a “webwork plot.” This can be defined as a plot that includes many strands or threads (each thread representing a character or significant object), which intersect in complex causal interactions. A webwork novel typically ends with a surprise revelation that clarifies these interactions retrospectively. According to Keeler’s 1927 series of articles on plot theory, “The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction,” a webwork plot is typically built around a sequence in which the main character intersects at least four other strands, one after the other, and each of these encounters causes the next one. Keeler never claimed to have invented the webwork plot, but only to be its theorist and practitioner.

Keeler followed a writing procedure of his own; he’d often write a huge manuscript, perhaps twice the length required. He’d then cut it down to size, removing unnecessary subplots and incidents. The removed material (which he called “the Chunk”) would sit around until Keeler wrote another manuscript to use it – which might result in yet another cutting procedure, and another “Chunk.” In his book ‘Thieves’ Nights’, the hero reads a book which is about two other men telling stories: a framing device within a framing device. In another book, Keeler and his wife turn up as characters in a story.

Keeler is also known for the MacGuffin-esque insertion of skulls into nearly all his stories. While many plots revolved around a skull or the use of one in a crime or ritual, others featured skulls merely as a side diversion, including one case where a human skull was used as a paperweight on the desk of a police detective.

Several of Keeler’s novels make reference to a (fictitious) book titled ‘The Way Out’, which is apparently a tome of ancient Oriental wisdom. The significance of the nonexistent Way Out in Keeler’s universe is equivalent to the role played by the Necronomicon within H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In the late 1930s, British writer John Russell Fearn gave credit to Keeler for inspiring his experiments with webwork plots in his pulp SF stories.

Edited from Wikipedia

The Harry Stephen Keeler Society

Note: These are very odd mysteries which will appeal to some, though most will probably prefer to give them a pass. For this reason I suggest trying one of his inexpensive ebooks before committing to purchase these often pricey collector’s editions, or try ‘Strands of the Web’ his collection of short fiction, which contains a good variety of Keeler writing. I have only read a couple of these titles, several years ago, and no reviews are to be found, so I have simply left most as unrated, without any Best Reviews! Enjoy!

Harry Stephen Keeler Locked Room Novels

amazing webThe Amazing Web (1930)

Available in paperback and ebook editions.
Book  eBook

Note: How the Trigger-Finger of a Man Long Dead Sent Another Man To His Death!

Not strictly an impossible crime, but close enough to the mark, and an excellent example of Keeler’s art that is available in a reasonably priced ebook edition! Every mystery fan should try reading Keller – he is completely unique! This is one of his earliest and best!

In this gigantic mystery story, Mr. Keeler has employed atavism in his plot, a thing that has probably never before been attempted in mystery fiction. Starting in pirate days with the bitter enmity between Captain Kidd and Captain Quarlbush whom Kidd marooned on a desert island for mutiny and thus deprived of a share in the spoils, Mr. Keeler conjures up in modern times a descendant of each of them and shows how in a mysterious way Quarlbush was finally avenged.

Standing one day before a strange beautiful Chinese cabinet, in which he was seeking some priceless papers, Kidd’s descendant falls dead. With many dramatic suspenses, Mr. Keeler tells the story of how Captain Quarlbush, bent upon revenge, secretly built the beautiful Chinese cabinet, which he plotted to fall into Kidd’s hands. This is the basis of the primary plot to which are interlaced many other plots in this incomparable book.

marceau caseThe Marceau Case (1936)
Detective: Marceau

Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.

Note: Dossier Novel!

“When André Marceau, known midget-hater, was found in the middle of his newly-tamped croquet field, garroted by an apparently small, helicopter-flying infant, Scotland Yard’s first theory was that a midget had done the deed. After all, Marceau had advocated the violent strangulation of all Lilliputians years before. But reporter Alec Snide vowed that before the Yard’s account of the crime was published he would come up with the true story – and beat their deadline!” Thus begins this masterpiece of Harry Stephen Keeler.

This is a classic “dossier novel” full of pictures, diagrams, clippings, telegrams and other novel ways to mimic a narrative. It provides the first solution to The Flying Strangler Baby Case.  

X Jones YardX. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936)
Detective: Marceau

Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.

Note: Second half of Marceau Case

One of Keeler’s best, this is the second half of the notorious Marceau case, where a strangler baby dangling from an autogyro may have done the deed. Written in 1935 at the peak of Keeler’s powers. Xenius Jones, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, gave the exact date he would reveal the details of the infamous André Marceau murder. Then Alec Snide, an American reporter, broke the case before he did! But Jones insists that Snide is 100% wrong – and he’s got the 4-dimensional proof of it! In the second “dossier novel” of this remarkable murder case, Harry Stephen Keeler once again proves that no one could handle a complicated plot as he could.

Y. Cheung BDY. Cheung, Business Detective (1939)
Detective: Marceau

Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.

Note: Final book in Marceau series!

A fairly normal mystery – by Keeler standards! The third and final book in the Marceau Series. Young Y. Cheung is in a pickle! In order to receive a $100,000 inheritance from his grand­father’s estate, he must get his name mentioned in 1000 U.S. newspapers, “in an honorable fashion”, before midnight of the day before the estate is settled. On top of that, his family doesn’t consider his one-of-a-kind profession, business detective, “honorable”. How Y. Cheung uses his inscrutable wiles to gain happiness and the inheritance is a tale only Harry Stephen Keeler could spin.

vanishing gold truckThe Vanishing Gold Truck (1941) 
Circus Series

Available only in paperback and hardcover editions.

Note: A truck disappears!

When the Cedarville bank is robbed of a gold shipment, Sheriff Bucyrus Duckhouse of Willis Creek was just where he wants to be – waiting at the end of the Smoky Ridge Tunnel where any minute the robbers have just got to emerge. But meanwhile, carny Jim Craney has a truckful of trouble as he scrambles to catch up with the rest of his circus. A truck full of a lioness and five newborn kittens! The only way he can make it in time to marry the circus woman he loves is if the Sheriff will let him take the Straightaway through the tunnel. Otherwise he’ll have to take Old Twistibus, the road so crooked they gave it a name.

2 strange ladiesThe Case of The Two Strange Ladies (1945)
The Way Out Series

Available in paperback and hardcover editions.

Note: Segregated body viewing?

It’s tough being a damn’d Yankee reporter in Southern City, but life just gets worse when the nude bodies of two wo­men – one white; one black – are found in Cattail Swamp with their heads cut off and swapped. Of course the only way to identify them is to have the bodies on display so every person in Southern City can see them. And the viewing has to be segregated. With such an organized ritual, how can ace reporter Tommy Skirmont ever hope to solve the mystery and keep his job? Only Harry Stephen Keeler could make all this make sense.

strange willThe Strange Will (1949) with Hazel Goodwin
Detective: Dr. Everett Edwards
Hong Lei Chung Series 

Available in paperback and ebook editions.

Note: Almost a lost novel?

A man is shot inside a locked room and Dr. Everett Edwards must sort out a very strange and complicated case. Little more is known about this rare novel.

Harry Stephen Keeler Locked Room Short Stories

strands webThe Hand of God (1952)
Collection: Strands of the Web: The Short Stories of Harry Stephen Keeler

Best Review

Available in paperback and ebook editions.

Note: A very strange collection!

“The Hand of God,” involves a man mysteriously stabbed to death in a locked room, with direct evidence that the death was neither a murder nor a suicide! While the medical examiner’s solution is absurd, it at least isn’t a direct slap to the face of the reader, as some of the other endings tend to be.

Harry Stephen Keeler Bibliography

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