The Riddle of the Traveling Skull
Harry Stephen Keeler
Between 1924 and 1953 Chicago native Harry Stephen Keeler published about 50 of the most exuberantly odd mysteries ever written. Set in a seemingly alternate universe thick with eccentrics–and exclamation points–Keeler’s novels feature a dozen or more disparate plot strands woven together through an astonishing agglomeration of weird wills, lunatic laws, crackpot contracts, idiotic oaths, and some of the most outrageously beautiful, layered coincidences ever put to paper. The New York Times could but marvel, of one forgotten title, “You cannot possibly dream of anything half so bizarre as the yarn Mr. Keeler has strung together.”
Although he enjoyed moderate commercial success early in his career–one of his books was the basis for a Bela Lugosi film, The Mysterious Mr. Wong–Keeler was long out of print when he died in 1967. But after his death, a small cult began scouring used-book stores for titles like The Skull of the Waltzing Clown and The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman. Articles celebrating his demented aesthetic began to appear in publications ranging from the Journal of Popular Culture to the New Republic, and his fame started to grow. This winter McSweeney’s Books formally launches a Keeler revival with its reprint of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, originally published in 1934. It’s the first Keeler to see print in America in more than 50 years.
Even the staunchest fan will admit that Keeler is not for everyone. Consider this typical sentence, from the first chapter of The Riddle:
“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 six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Don Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigee; 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 now became a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel or ‘Suing Sophie!'”
This is the sort of prose that led one reviewer to accuse him of writing in Choctaw. But if you can see a certain loopy beauty in the ornate syntax and rampant semicolons; if you can sense the touch of a genius in the creation of Legga the Human Spider and the Great Simon; or if you’re just wondering how the hell it can all come together coherently, Keeler is a sublime pleasure.
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull opens with narrator Clay Calthorpe returning home to Chicago from a business trip to Asia. He’s worried about a potential entanglement with “Suing Sophie,” a middle-aged missionary who files breach-of-promise suits against every man who crosses her path. However, she’s soon relegated to the back burner when Clay opens his bag and finds inside, instead of his toiletries, a trepanned skull.
He quickly deduces that he must have switched bags with a clergyman on a Broadway streetcar. However, this is no ordinary trepanned skull–and in short order Clay is mugged and relieved of the object by a mysterious Chinese man, inexplicably jilted by his fiancee, and inadvertently involved in blackmail directed against his employer and potential father-in-law, Roger Pelton.
To untangle the mystery, Clay sets out on an odyssey through Keeler’s beloved “London of the West”–a thoroughly skewed Chicago. One memorable sequence finds him hunting for clues in a cemetery dedicated to circus freaks. He finally determines that the skull belongs to a man Pelton murdered 20 years ago. The skull contains incontrovertible evidence of Pelton’s guilt and is now in the hands of a blackmailer intent on his ruin. But after spotting the “Sherlockholmsian” hat and a ventriloquist’s dummy outfitted as a cockney costermonger in Pelton’s butler’s room, Clay is prepared to unmask the blackmailer.
At this point, two-thirds of the way through the book, the publisher issues a “Challenge to the Reader.” An insert announces, “Stop! At this point all the necessary clues have been presented to make it possible for you to determine the identity of the blackmailer. CAN YOU DO IT?”
Blanks are helpfully provided for the reader to write down a guess, but the answer is: of course not. The solution to a Keeler mystery is impossible to divine from mere clues, and Keeler had a penchant for introducing twist upon turn upon complication right up to the final page. Clay’s impeccably reasoned solution quickly crumbles when the truth comes out; the final answer involves so many unlikely coincidences and almost avant-garde literary devices (including four characters who all turn out to be the same person) that it’s almost postmodern.
It’s not too surprising that this sort of tomfoolery didn’t play too well in post-World War II America. As cold war paranoia set in, mysteries grew increasingly straight and serious and the popularity of hard-boiled writers like Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner skyrocketed. Even Ellery Queen swapped his pince-nez for a psychology textbook. Against this buttoned-down backdrop–when a “cult writer” meant someone like Kafka–Keeler must have appeared hopelessly screwy, if not downright un-American. But with the line between high and low culture now so intractably blurred, his time may have finally come.