Monday, May 13, 2013

I'm Just Wild About Harry

Meanwhile at the Internet State Penitentiary...
The clock struck four A.M.  and the moonlight shone dimly through the window of the prison cell, the one on death row at the Internet State Penitentiary. Inside, four men – of which I was a part! – were contemplating the inevitable destruction of three of their members within a few hours. The Irishman got up and addressed the group:

“Gentlemen,” he said, “if I know yew as I t’ink I dew, it seems probable that ye’re all contemplatin’ yer inevitable destruction in a few hours. But perhaps we’d best be getting’ on with yer contest?”

“Of course,” said I, “but before we do so perhaps it is best we review the circumstances under which we found ourselves here.”

It had happened just a few weeks ago. As I was strolling along the West Side of the Internet, I found myself wandering near the abode of the Baron Ferdinand Christiaan van Aalsmeerderbrug tot Zwammerdam. I decided to drop in, having forgiven the Baron Etcetera for the incident that took place a few months ago. To my shock, I saw that the Baron Etcetera had only just reviewed Max Allan Collins’ The Titanic Murders, a book that I had nearly finished and was getting set to review myself. I stared at the review in horror, for it meant only one thing: the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler was back.

Harry Stephen Keeler himself
I could not understand how it had happened again, and the Baron Etcetera was equally puzzled. Our last encounter with the ghost of Keeler had led to me to the sinister Ramble House, where I read his book The Riddle of the Travelling Skull in order to exorcise his ghostly spectre from the blogosphere. And for a while, it worked. Coincidences stopped flooding the blogosphere, and we mystery bloggers could freely write about whatever books we chose, confident that nobody else would be reviewing them simultaneously.

But then the coincidences began piling up, one after the other. The first one may have been just a coincidence. Two, three of them, and we all ignored in our hubris the signs! But more and more of them began to show up, and finally I began to suspect Keeler after the Titanic Murders fiasco. My suspicions were confirmed a few days later, when the coincidences began to enter new territories. Fellow blogger John Norris found a sinister message inside of a book that seemed like the plot of a novel come to life, coincidentally in a highly appropriate book for the occasion.

That was when I made my vow, a vow that would lead to my destruction! I promised there and then that I would find the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler and exorcise him from the blogosphere once and for all! It was then that I heard the noise of glass shattering, and before long I found myself under arrest by the Supremely Humane Internet Terrorism Supressory Quantum Unit, Anno Domini 2013 (SHITSQUAD2013).

It seemed that, according to the law, my vow to destroy Keeler’s ghost was a distinct threat of Internet terrorism. Compounded with my previous record – having hated both Books to Die For and Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery (both of them unreasonable awards season juggernauts) – I was thrown into the Internet State Penitentiary, about a half mile away from Chicago, told that I would await my execution there, for such crimes could only be punished with death. My pleas for a retrial went unanswered and a date of execution was announced.

A typical Keelerian plot

By a curious coincidence, the execution date was the same as that of two other bloggers, thrown into death row for similar offences. One of them was a Scostman named Arregaithel Armstrong, thrown into death row for daring to suggest that Raymond Chandler was not a perfect writer. The other was a part Chinese, part American Indian, part Russian, and part Irishman named Igor Big Tree Wilkinson-Chang. His crime had been to suggest that there was more to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction than the “Crime Queens” (Christie, Allingham, Sayers, Marsh, and Josephine Tey for bonus points).

All three of us were ready to die for our crimes against the Internet, when the governor strolled into our cell. He confessed that he didn’t much like executing bloggers, but that the media was out for our blood and he had no choice but to allow the execution to continue. However, to appease his conscience, he would allow one of us to live. So he dropped a pardon into our laps, filled in correctly with all of the details except the name of the prisoner to be pardoned – which was left blank – and told us to decide amongst ourselves which of us would be set free.

When I finished recounting all these facts to my audience, they nodded appreciatively. Emboldened by this, I continued: “And so we decided to hold a gentlemanly contest, to be judged by O’Malley [here I gestured towards the Irishman]. All three of us were to review a book and to do so as best as we could, and O’Malley would decide which reviewer was the best. You, Armstrong [I gestured at the Scostman] reviewed Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and came to the stunning conclusion that, although it is a good read and despite its major fan base, it was seriously flawed as a detective story.”

Armstrong nodded noncommittally. “Hi find it coorioos that the othour wos so hintent on whitewashing the character of Richard III that she hundermined her whole premise aboot trooth and heestory.”

“You, Wilkinson-Chang,” I continued, “chose an opposite tack to our good friend Armstrong, picking an oft-ignored novel, Derek Smith’s Whistle Up The Devil, and painting an enthusiastic portrait of an unfairly-overlooked classic.”

Wilkinson-Chang nodded silently. I found that he was a man of little words, saving them for the enthusiastic ramblings of his reviews. Perhaps this technique helped him to lend more weight to the words he did use.

O’Malley then decided to interrupt me. “We all know this, and I canna imagine what yew tink reviewing the facts will accomplish. Why don’t yew jus review your book now?”

I politely bowed to O’Malley. “Sir, you are quite correct. And indeed, the only reason I am reviewing the facts of our situation is to make the gravity of it all the more clear for our audience. For one of us will undoubtedly survive this night, and will therefore have quite a lucrative position with the film rights to our story.

“But my exposition dump serves another purpose, for it is a most appropriate introduction to the book that I wish to review. It is a novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, entitled Sing Sing Nights, and it is full of unnecessary exposition. It is also a book that was brought back into print by the sinister Ramble House that I have had prior dealings with. In addition, there is a tendency to constantly fly back a few paragraphs and add some more information to a subject nobody has been discussing just yet. Incidentally, O’Malley, that is a fetching pair of brown leather shoes you are wearing, doubtless a symbolic metaphor. But I distract myself.

Sing Sing Nights is an adventure in which Harry Stephen Keeler recycled some old stories of his. However, in typical Keelerian fashion, he cannot simply compile them into a short story collection. Indeed no — that would be fatal to his plans of internet domination. Instead, he fashions a deliciously nonsensical story to connect these short stories.

“It turns out that three men are in prison for murder, having killed a man out of abstract idealism that has something to do with a Very Nice Girl that the victim was ready to ruin. But their plans went awry and they were caught. Here is the uniquely Keelerian twist: only two bullets were found in the body, and the police, rather than using ballistics or angles of fire in order to determine the guilty party, decided to go with the unorthodox method of charging all three of the men for the murder that only two of them committed.

“The governor hears of this, and instead of doing something about it he proceeds with his own unorthodox policies of releasing prisoners. He decides to pardon only one individual, because clearly there is only one possibility: one of the three men did not end up pulling the trigger. (Apparently the police knew enough about ballistics to eliminate the possibility of one man missing his target and therefore being charged merely with attempted murder… and yet they did not have enough lab time to determine which man fired which bullet.) However, the three accused men are stubborn idealists, and instead of admitting his innocence, the innocent man would rather be executed for the crime.

“So an elegant solution proposes itself. The men engage in a storytelling contest, and their guard will decide who has told the best story. That man will then walk away with a pardon and with three stories he can use to hastily cobble a book together, after which he can sell the film rights. And so we enter the magical world of Harry Stephen Keeler, as told in Sing Sing Nights.

“The first two stories are novellas, The Strange Adventure of the Giant Moth and The Strange Adventure of the Twelve Coins of Confucius. Both these stories offer plenty of Keeler at his finest. They both offer webwork plots that rely on coincidence to fuel the whole thing. The stories are unbelievable to everyone except the inhabitants of Keelerland, who accept it unquestionably as the only logical sequence of events. And they are full of deliciously quotable Keelerian howlers, both great and incomprehensible.”

Here I paused my review to take out my copy of Sing Sing Nights and quote some of the more delectable passages:
***
[A character talking about a contest another character has entered:]
"If you lose — and it’s not at all certain that you will win, call me a little pessimist if you will — you’re going to be terribly hard hit. I can see it in your voice (...)"
***
[A Japanese servant explains why he left his master’s employ:]
“Becooze me an’ he have quarrel w’at all heez fault — not mine. I speel bot’le o’ ink on Persi’n rug in doorway o’ lebbertory on secon’ floor las’ night — an’ he say Ushi got pay for new rug. Ushi don’t not pay f’r no rugs, nevaire, to man w’at pay ‘im only eight dollar a week. I say I not pay, an’ he say he hol’ back my monee till it paid for.” The Jap emitted a snarling laugh. “Old man Silvester not know Ushi got monee enough save’ to go back to Freesco, an’ Ushi queet on spot, leave las’ week’s pay go jus’ like that” — he snapped his fingers — ”pack ‘is suit-case an’ slip out. From there he went to depot an’ bought ticket for Freesco an’ wait till train ready to go. An’ they peeck him up as he get on train. Thaz all he knows.”
***
"But why all the Chinese literature? Anæsthetic before an operation in pediatrics?"
Frangenac leaned back in his swivel chair and laughed a mirthless laugh. "You’re good, Barton. That was worthy of mine own tongue."
{[(I have no idea what that one means.)]}
***
[A reporter was told to get an impossible-to-get interview from a Chinese princess or he can consider himself fired. Apparently he is a very good reporter, so his boss has to give a very long-winded and not-particularly-logical explanation for the ultimatum.]
“The Old Man wired me to lay off one man. Also, I don’t feel that we’re paying you enough for your brilliant work. I appreciate the fact that the Dispatch will probably collapse within a week after you leave us; so to retain your services and thus save the paper, I suggest that you go out and bring in a nice little interview with her royal nibs. I can conscientiously change the angle of fire then, and let out someone else whom I’ve had in my eye for a long time.” He paused. “But if it’s a case of too much mixed Yankee and Britisher blood in your veins, drop in at the cashier’s office on your way out tonight. Your cheque will be ready.”
***
“On what floor is Princess O Lyra — ?” he began.
“Suite 14B,” interrupted the clerk. He grinned an irritating grin. “My dear sir, if you knew of the newspaper men that have been in here all morning, and filing out again, you wouldn’t ask that question. Mr. Tsung has given me the Princess’s instructions to tell all newspaper men that she does not care to give out any interviews.”
[I love, love, love the clerk’s logic here…]
***
[A reporter just told a Chinese princess that he thinks she is wonderful. Her reaction:]
She clasped her hands closer together. “And to me that is wonderful. All my life, Mr. Jason H. Barton, have I wanted to meet someone who did think I was wonderful — who could see me down to my soul. No one has ever said that to me before. Oh, but you cannot dream how I have wanted to be understood. Even my honourable father does not know his O Lyra Seng. And you really think that, Mr. Jason H. Barton? That — this — is wonderful to me. Somebody — somebody at last understands O Lyra Seng.”
[Note: the princess has the delightful habit of referring to Jason H. Barton as Jason H. Barton. Not Mr. Barton, nor even plain old “Jason”. It’s always the complete name, Jason H. Barton, and you are supposed to believe that the two of them fall madly in love. It offers so many hilariously bad pieces of dialogue that I haven’t the heart to mine this particular gold stream for you.]
***
[One the most unintentionally funny lines in the book, delivered by the hero of our second story:]
“But where in God’s name can I find an educated Chinaman? (…)”
***
[Finally, this quote could sum up all of Keeler's oeuvre:]
“The Twelve Golden Coins of Confucius!” murmured Barton, interested. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”
***
“Neither did I, my friends,” I said, resuming my review. “I’m genuinely at a loss to describe even a plot outline of these two adventures. They deliver on what the titles promise, and they offer plenty of Keeler at his most bizarrely creative. It is fun for the whole family.

“Unfortunately, the third story, The Strange Adventure of the Missing Link, is not nearly as fun to read. Mercifully, it is just a short story (compared to the two novella-length adventures that came before), but it is boring, slightly unusual for the Harry Stephen Keeler I’ve come to know. It involves the adventures of a man who wakes up one morning in the body of a gorilla. He is lectured on some preposterous pseudo-science that made this transformation possible, and delivers pages of misery as his adventures bore the living daylights out of his readers.

“Unusually for Keeler, the plot is more or less linear. Although there is a signature Keelerian coincidence to this story, it is one that I literally predicted in the opening of the second chapter, moments after the story idea had been established – another thing that is highly unusual for Keeler. Usually I have no idea where the plot is going, or if indeed there is a plot at all.

“Another unusual factor is that the story has very, very few silly quotable lines – so few that I dare not quote any of them for fear of spoiling what little fun there is to be had in this tale. The writing is just plain bad, without ascending to the heights of Keelerian absurdity that make reading his work so much fun. It turns out that without his signature craziness, Harry Stephen Keeler goes from a delightfully absurd author to just a plain bad one.

“However, it is still Harry Stephen Keeler. Despite a bit of an underwhelming end, Sing Sing Nights is a wonderful example of everything that makes Keeler so great. Keeler is one of the few authors who managed to free himself from the shackles of grammar, reducing it to a series of suggestions that needn’t be followed. He predicted the future of crime fiction, in that it would not require a logical plot of any sort, and this enabled his peculiar brand of coincidence-fuelled plotting to thrive.

“I still cannot get over how the framework of this story makes no sense. I still delight in the hero’s absurdity in the second story and how because of his stupidity a lot of unnecessary trouble is caused for everyone. I still cannot figure out just how many coincidences were present in the first adventure – indeed, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happened to begin with. But I know one thing: I had a blast. And despite all the absurdities, somehow Keeler managed to find some intriguing ideas, ideas that make me think, ‘Wow! If a genuinely good author had this idea, there might even be a story out of it!’”

Here I stopped my review, and the four of us began to look at each other, wondering which of us would receive the pardon. But all of a sudden, the governor stormed into our chambers, waving three pieces of paper, shouting “I have done it! At last, I can set you free without worrying what the media thinks! Ah, I cannot tell you gentlemen how relieved I am at this turn of events.”

Confused, I stared at the pardon that had been placed in my hands. I was confused. It was true, the governor did not like executing bloggers, but hadn’t the media wanted us dead? I voiced the question racing through all of our minds:

“Sir, I cannot tell you how much this pardon means to me. It means being able to go back out into the world and continue reviewing books, written by people like Max Allan Collins, Dave Zeltsterman, and yes, taking my first crack at reviewing a Josephine Tey novel. It is all I could have asked for and still more. But tell me, what made you change your mind? Why have you chosen to set us free?”

The governor grinned. “I could not pardon you boys before, for you were headline news for quite a bit. Many people were literally demanding your blood. But by coincidence, something has happened to distract the masses, something new for them to argue about and wage wars over.”

I did not comprehend, and I fear my face told him so much. At last, the governor took pity on me, and with a broad grin let us in on the secret. “But man, haven’t you heard? Star Trek Into Darkness has been released in the UK! And it is about to be released here in North America! And this comes right on the heels of Iron Man 3! People still have no idea what to think of Ben Kinglsey’s Mandarin, and here comes another movie to divide fans and cause flame wars! With Disney planning their new Star Wars films, this movie has caused Star Wars vs. Star Trek violence levels to soar higher than ever before! And slowly but surely, you fellows dropped out of the limelight! Nobody cares whether you are executed anymore, and I can safely pardon you without inflicting the wrath of the media!”

He ran out, and we all gaped in silence, amazed at the governor’s wisdom. Meanwhile, I had a nagging feeling at the back of my mind. All this reminded me of something… but I can’t quite remember what.
***
If this review left you confused, then that is probably because you’ve never heard of Harry Stephen Keeler, a man with the reputation of being the mystery genre’s answer to Ed Wood. To paraphrase William DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, Keeler is considered a mystery writer only because no other genre will have him. His plots are full of coincidence, bad writing is key to all his books, and the logic could be kindly described as “porous”. And yet despite all this, Keeler’s wild imagination and good-humoured approach to writing have made him a new favourite of mine. Occasionally, his ideas border on the genuinely ingenious before he gives them a Keelerian twist, and they make me wonder whether a genuinely good author could have done anything with them.

One thing I have discovered with Keeler is that his writing style compels you to imitate it. I could easily have done a conventional review of this book like I always do, but something drove me to write it this way. Perhaps the ghost of Keeler was perched on the bust of Pallas just above my chamber door, encouraging me on. Either way, ghost or no ghost, I had tremendous fun reading Sing Sing Nights and highly recommend it to people with a sense of humour who want to experience something bat-shit crazy – with the caveat that the third story of the collection is a bad one even by Keeler’s exceptionally low standards.

This review was written to celebrate my birthday tomorrow, May 14th, which will mark the third birthday I celebrate on this blog. I’m posting it early to accommodate my night shift, so that I can link to this review via all the usual social networks.

For more information on Harry Stephen Keeler, why not read Bill Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek or its sequel, Son of Gun in Cheek (which covers Keeler in far more detail)? It’s a hilarious read and it’ll give you a great overview of some “alternative” classics – books so bad that they become unintentionally hilarious. Alternatively, visit the site dedicated to Keeler at Ramble House, which will give you far more information than I can.

Just remember, once you’ve read a Keeler, there’s no turning back. Because Harry Stephen Keeler is the hero crime fiction desperately needs, but not the one any sane reader deserves. So we'll hunt him. Because he, his plots, and his grammar can take it. Because he's not our hero. (You probably missed that twist on page 72.) He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.

4 comments:

  1. A Scostman? From Scostland? :-)

    If you've never seen it, have a look at http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931907/The%20Five%20Silver%20Buddhas

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  2. One of my favorites. You really need to read the following:

    Thieves' Nights (very similar to Sing Sing Nights with it story within a story structure), Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman (which manages to incorporate George Barr McCutcheon's adventure novels, the science of acoustics, and safecracking into one plot), Find the Clock (has a secret message left in a laundered shirt among other insanities), The Washington Square Enigma (the only GAD mystery I know of that uses the prestigious Newberry Library as a setting. Also, one of his most outrageous solutions) and The Green Jade Hand (the ultimate spoof of the entire genre).

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, I really loved this one. The second story in particular reaches such heights of absurdity that it left me quite sad when it came to an end.

      Well, THE WASHINGTON SQUARE ENIGMA is already on my Kindle, so I guess I know which Keeler will be the next one when I get around to it... but like a good wine, it's probably best not to overdose on Keeler in such a short space of time. I'll give it a couple of months...

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  3. Weird! However, hope you had a smashing birthday Patrick - buon compleanno mate.

    Sergio

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