As Francis Nevins, his biographer, has chronicled, Harry Stephen Keeler began his writing career as early as 1910. His first efforts were conventional stories, one of which he sold, but after his success with his first crime story, “Victim No. 5,” he began to write crime pieces almost exclusively. Nevins speculates that Keeler’s tendency toward reflection and solitude were motivated by the disasters of his early life, and that this penchant led him to writing.
Typical of Keeler’s early phase (1914-1924) is the outlandish plotting of “Victim No. 5.” The story revolves around a certain Ivan Kossakoff, a professional strangler of women, whose punishment is to die by being crushed to death by his pet boa constrictor. Already in these early tales, certain features of what became a characteristically flamboyant, overdrawn, and bizarre content and style were beginning to emerge: the propensity for freaky, unbelievable characters; the penchant for absurdly incongruous plots and situations; a stringing together of metaphors and similes to create startlingly surreal images; and the use of preposterous surnames, on which Keeler puns almost adolescently—all done in a formal, Victorian, deadpan style, with dialogue reminiscent of penny Victorian novels.
The Voice of the Seven Sparrows
In 1924, Keeler’s literary career took a new turn: Hutchinson, a British publisher, brought out his first novel, The Voice of the Seven Sparrows. In this typically wild, unconventional novel, two rival Chicago newsmen are searching for a publisher’s vanished daughter. Along the way, they encounter a Chinese millionaire who bets that he can walk across South America and a suitor who writes thousands of postcards in an attempt to find his lost lady.
The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro
In another novel of this period, The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro (1926), a young innocent, Jerome Middleton, heir to a patent medicine fortune, is directed by his dead father to wear a pair of spectacles for a whole year before he can receive his inheritance. Thrown into an insane asylum by a rival for the legacy, Middleton finds the inmates saner than so-called normal people. The apparently “sane” doctor who ministers to the inmates is a mad clown appropriately named Herr Doctor Meister Professor von Zero.
Sing Sing Nights and Thieves’ Nights
In Sing Sing Nights (1928) three authors are about to be electrocuted for murder. The governor hands them a pardon for one, and only one, of the three; they are to decide among themselves who is to benefit from it. The authors agree to give the pardon to the one who can produce the best story, to be judged by one of their prison guards. Thieves’ Nights (1929), another novel of this period, concerns Ward Sharlow, who is engaged to impersonate a missing heir and in doing so runs into the typical ménage of oddball and “kooky” characters.
These novels of the 1920’s incorporate what had become typical Keeler motifs: the innocent protagonist cast into a den of malicious characters; the interruption of the main plot by ancillary characters with tales of their own—often to the effect that the main plot is overshadowed by these digressions (the “Arabian nights” technique); the usual grotesqueries, in both character and situation; and bitter social criticism denouncing all sorts of ills, from maltreatment of those who are different to the corruption of the judicial system.
The Amazing Web
In the 1930’s, Keeler began to write what Nevins calls the “Keelerganzias,” novels of elephantine proportion, running to hundreds of pages and dozens of plots. The best example of these is The Amazing Web (1929), which many critics consider to be Keeler’s masterpiece. In this blockbuster, the “webwork” lacing of plot and subplot—the intricate interweaving of apparently coincidental but ultimately...
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