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INTRODUCTION TO THE BLACKMAILER

Francis M. Nevins

Novello.

You won’t find the word in any dictionary but you see it again and again in the correspondence, newsletters and how-to-write tomes of Harry Stephen Keeler. He used it to describe the tales he wrote that were too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novels. Everybody else called such works short novels, or novelettes, or novelets, or novellas. Not Harry. It’s possible, of course, that he meant to call them novellas but never learned how to spell the word right. His manuscripts are rife with such misspellings: observor for observer and calcomine for calcimine, just to name two. But I prefer to think he coined the word deliberately. And I also like to think that, if and when he used it in conversation, he coined his own pronunciation too: not noVELlo but NOVello.

No one can say just when he started calling his mid-length works of fiction by that name, but we know he began writing them very early in his career, completing three (“The Corpse at No. 38”, “The Trepanned Skull” and “A Rise in Value”) in 1914 and selling them to various magazines the following year. THE BLACKMAILER is the last novello Harry ever wrote and apparently the only work of fiction (except for the short-short story “Goodby Coppers!”) he was able to write between the death of his first wife Hazel from cancer in 1960 and his marriage to the former Thelma Tertza Rinaldo in 1964. He finished the tale on October 14, 1961 and put it together with two very early novellos that he had never blown out to full length, hoping to sell the package to his Spanish publisher. Instituto Editorial Reus passed on it and the typescript sat forgotten for decades. Ramble House has published the first two component parts of the package as separate volumes (THE FLYER HOLD-UP and ADVENTURE IN MILWAUKEE) and now, with THE BLACKMAILER, makes it a threesome.

It’s one of the shortest of Keeler’s novellos, and—with only four onstage characters and a story made up almost entirely of long-winded conversations about offstage events—it’s completely typical of his late manner. No one but Harry could have devised THE BLACKMAILER’s plot. An eccentric Asian millionaire, a will written on the inside of one of three identical Chinese ceremonial drums, a devious woman lawyer, an absurd U.S. government department dreamed up by Harry ex nihilo, a small town in New Jersey which offers instant marriages to total strangers, an off-the-wall legal ra-tionale for the need to track down the real name of the dissolute playboy Adelbert Scatterday Fothergill-Starkweather—known to his café-society friends as The Fish!—all this and many more trademark HSKisms are packed into less than 75 printed pages, which also feature the last bow of our old pal Hong Lei Chung, grand poohbah of the Tong of Lean Grey Rats!

If reading THE BLACKMAILER gives you a sense of deja vu, it’s because you’ve read Harry’s novel THE SIX FROM NOWHERE, which was completed in 1958 but published nowhere until the Ramble House edition of 2001. The final chapter of that gem of wild woolliosity uncorks an eccentric millionaire, plus a set of three wills—two of them attested by the same witnesses and one but only one of the two leaving a fortune to the Lean Grey Rats!—plus a fatal accident on the way to a New York lawyer’s office, plus a dissolute New York playboy named Garpow Spinner who, like Adelbert in THE BLACKMAILER, is precisely 43 years of age—although no one refers to him as The Fish! Anyone who finishes THE BLACKMAILER and doesn’t see that it’s an offshoot or afterbirth of THE SIX FROM NOWHERE sees, if I may borrow one of Harry’s favorite phrases, like a toad at noonday.

If you disagree, send me an e-mail and hold your breath till I send you a rebuttal—replete with clauses between dashes, and generously larded with exclamation points!

 

Francis M. Nevins

 

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