The Riddle of the Traveling Skull
Harry Stephen Keeler
Every once in a while even the insufferable do something right. Witness McSweeney’s—that maddening repository of sincerely sarcastic in-jokes and the lemmings who care to understand them—reissuing Harry Stephen Keeler’s 1934 The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Keeler was an American, Chicago-born in 1890. During his lifetime he penned more than 70 mysteries and crime novels; he died in 1967. Chicago appears in some way in nearly every book, and they’re all written with Keeler’s peculiar take on character, plot, dialogue, and, well, the English language. Reading Keeler occasionally feels like pouring through an atrociously haphazard foreign-language translation—by a translator fluent in neither the original nor translated tongue.
Just don’t worry if sense story make the doesn’t: Keeler’s nonsense feels as naturally immediate as talking to a stranger at a bar, the tales twice as convoluted, preposterous, and redundant, and everything 50 times more fun. The Riddle of the Travelling Skull concerns candy salesman Clay Calthorpe, whose plans to marry Doris Pelton, his boss’ daughter, are thwarted when he accidentally switches bags with a priest on a streetcar and discovers a bullet-hole-ridden skull inside when he gets home. He’s soon waylaid by a Chinaman footpad. (Keeler lacks certain cultural niceties, regularly referring to an Asian as a “Chinaman” and an African-American as a “Negro”—with the accompanying butchered Ebonics slanguage—and every non-English-speaking European speaks in a vaguely Teutonic stumbling that might as well be Hogan’s Heroes’ Sgt. Schultz.) The Chinaman steals the bag with the skull, setting off an ever-widening chain of bizarre circumstances and coincidences.
Parsing through the clues to unraveling the traveling skull leads Calthorpe to a circus-freak graveyard, a doctor who specializes in trephination, a deerstalker-wearing Cockney named Milo Payne, and Calthorpe’s potential father-in-law’s secret about how he got started in the candy biz. These tangents barely thread together—Keeler’s favorite punctuation mark is the em-dash and his sentences, cobbled together like German adverbs, are Frankensteined stories in miniature—to say nothing of the completely divergent asides: widowed serial lawsuit filer Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel, upstanding bachelor John Barr, phantom poet Abigail Sprigge. Yes, eventually the mystery is solved, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a clue as to how. Five rereadings of the final chapters haven’t clarified a freaking thing.
Which, again, hardly matters. Truly bonkers writers are one thing; a truly bonkers writer this enjoyable, prolific, and unknown is a gift from the Dada gods. Had Keeler cherished serious literary goals or wrote something other than crime, graduate students and bloggers would champion the artiste for his proto-postmod—uh, you know what: fractured, self-aware narratives inside narratives. (Davis Dresser, better known as pulp staple Brett Halliday, awaits such a revival himself.) Thankfully, Keeler’s novels suggest being part of any snooty establishment was never one of his goals.