Thursday, January 08, 2015


Schools are closed, highways and roads are closed, white out conditions everywhere, they closed the mall and Shyboy Tim's work closed super early.  Could it be?  Is this a winter storm?  NO!  Its...


That's right!  We're naming Winter Storms/Blizzards/Cold Snaps after authors now!  And Harry Stephen Keeler is the very first one under this new regulation!

Who the hell is Harry Stephen Keeler?  I thought you'd never ask!  Keeler wrote Keeler books.  They fell under many different genres, but they are written in the style of Keeler.  Nobody else wrote like him, and it's likely that nobody else would want to.  He has been called the Ed Wood of detective novels, and the comparison is a fair one.  These books are bad, but that's why they're so good.  They're too fun to be anything other than good.

Harry Stephen Keeler lived and wrote in Chicago, a city that has had more than its fair share of eccentric artistic types (see Henry Darger, Vivian Maier).  He started writing short stories when he was sixteen, pausing briefly when his mother had him committed to an insane asylum at age 20.  When he got out he worked at a steel mill, but his dreams of writing never died, and his mother agreed to support him for one year so he could attempt to make it as an author.  It was during this period that he sold his first story for publication.  Unfortunately, no copies of the story have been discovered.  No matter, because Harry was a prolific author, and over the course of his long and questionable career he published eighty five books.


His first works were published in the 1920s, and by the end of the 1930s his U.S. publisher, E.P. Dutton, had put out 37 books by Keeler.  By the early 1940s he was dropped by Dutton but continued to be published in the UK.  Eventually his writing, already pretty weird, grew even weirder, and towards the end of his life he was only published in Spain and Portugal.  Harry Stephen Keeler died in 1967.

It's hard to even begin to describe the work of Harry Stephen Keeler.  Instead I'll paste some descriptions of his work from the Harry Stephen Keeler Home Page:

A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own.  Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter.  (X. Jones of Scotland Yard, 1936)

A poem leads the protagonist to a cemetery specializing in circus freaks and the grave of "Legga, the Human Spider," a woman with four legs and six arms.  Legga was born in Canton, China, and died in Canton, Ohio. (The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, 1934)

A disgruntled phone company employee calls every man in Minneapolis, telling him the morning papers will name him as the secret bhusband of convicted murderess Jemimah Cobb, who runs a whorehouse specializing in women with physical abnormalities.  (The Man With the Magic Eardrums, 1939)

The Harry Stephen Keeler Home Page goes on to describe his mystery work as such:  "Although much of Keeler is steeped in the tradition of classical puzzle mysterys, woe to the reader who thinks he is going to guess the denouement.  The Ace of Spades Murder is a whodunit in which the character who will be revealed guilty is introduced, for the first time, on the third-to-last page of the book."

It wasn't uncommon for Harry to cannibalize entire sections of his works and thrown them, verbatim, into other things he was working on.  Many of his works also include unrelated passages that were written by his wife Hazel Goodwin Keeler, whom many consider the better writer of the two.  He also liked to write phonetically in dialects, often resulting in completely unintelligible passages.

Keeler wrote in an elaborate framework he called Webwork, where several unrelated characters and events are connected by strings of implausible coincidence.  By the end of the novel all the story lines mesh together in a surprise ending.  This was usually done by throwing all sense of reality out the window.  Keeler even wrote a treatise on Webwork writing, complete with an illustration detailing how a typical story is laid out:

Did anybody else use this method for writing a novel?  Not bloody likely.  Only Keeler could write like this. 

I first discovered Harry Stephen Keeler when Collins Library (an imprint of McSweeney's) republished his 1934 masterpiece The Riddle of the Traveling Skull.  The writing was crazy and the plot was even crazier, and from that moment on I was hooked.  That edition is now out of print, but there is a publisher called Ramble House that has been issuing Keeler books in Print-On-Demand and e-book editions for quite a while.  They've even put out english translations of the Spanish and Portuguese titles, as well as several works that had never been in print.  Ever want to read the newsletters that Keeler self published?  Ramble House even published those.  They're doing great things, those Ramble House folks.

If you're looking to acquire some original Keeler novels you had better be ready to shell out some serious bucks.  First editions with dust jackets go for several hundred dollars, and even later printings still run $50 and up.  I've lucked into a few over the years on ebay, but it's not a collection that I can afford to build quickly.  My prize edition is a Dutton printing of The Matilda Hunter Murder, complete with the hard-to-find page that claimed the reader had all the info necessary to solve the mystery.  This being a Keeler novel, however, the chances were 50/50 that this was true.

Harry Stephen Keeler is an author that needs to be read to be believed.  In conclusion, I like clipper ships.



Additional references:

Roger Ebert writes about Keeler

Harry Stephen Keeler on Wikipedia

The Harry Stephen Keeler Society

The Harry Stephen Keeler Homepage

Ramble House editions of Harry Stephen Keeler novels

Subscribe to the sporadically published Keeler Society Newsletter!

Well, the made TWO, actually, and both of them are based on Keeler's novel Sing Sing Nights.  PICK YOUR FAVE!

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