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THE CASE OF THE CRAZY CORPSE
Francis M. Nevins
Ramble House’s publication of THE CASE OF THE CRAZY CORPSE is an historic event of the first water—at least if you’re a devotee of Harry Stephen Keeler! At long last every volume of Keeler’s Circus Octology is available in English, or rather in Harry’s self-created version of that tongue.
As readers of previous Angus MacWhorter novels are aware, the series had a strange and checkered history. It began with THE VANISHING GOLD TRUCK, which Keeler completed in 1940 when he still had a major American publisher. E.P. Dutton issued the U.S. edition in 1941 and Harry’s London publisher Ward Lock brought out the British edition the following year.
After World War II had ended, Keeler continued with the saga. In December 1946 he completed a 140,000-word gargantua he called THE ACE OF SPADES MURDER, but no one wanted to publish the book at that length. Ward Lock issued a relatively long and meaty version as THE ACE-OF-SPADES MURDER in 1949, but by this time Harry had been “fired” by Dutton and was being published in the U.S. by the bottom-rung Phoenix Press, which demanded such huge cuts that he had to rework the manuscript completely in order to come up with the much shorter although no less Keeleresque version issued by Phoenix as THE CASE OF THE JEWELED RAGPICKER (1949).
Over the course of the 1950s Harry wrote several more circus novels, each one revolving around a chunk of the material he had had to excise from the ACE OF SPADES manuscript, most of them playing variations on the two-headed dilemma that motivated and motived the main characters in the uncut version of that novel: old Angus is threatened with the loss of his circus while one of his younger employees strives manfully to overcome a host of natural and man-made obstacles and rejoin the show before the sky falls in at X Hour. This was the origin of STAND BY—LONDON CALLING! (Ward Lock, 1953), the third and last MacWhorter novel to appear in English in Keeler’s lifetime, although it appeared only in Britain since by this time even the lowly Phoenix had given up on Harry and he was publisherless in his own land.
The same quandary lies at the heart of the book you hold in your hands, the fourth adventure of MacW’s screwball circus and the last of the octology to be published by Ramble House. The novel Harry occasionally referred to as A NIGHTGOWN FOR JOHANNA or A GIRL NAMED PATCH but eventually gifted with the much more appropriate title THE CASE OF THE CRAZY CORPSE was completed on April 2, 1953. Most of his novels of the Fifties were published in his lifetime only in Spanish if at all, but even the Madrid-based Instituto Editorial Reus said “We no wan’ theez wan, my fr’an’ ” to CRAZY CORPSE. In 1955, however, the Lisbon publisher Editorial Seculo bought Portuguese translation rights from him for $50 and brought the book out as O CASO DO CADAVER ENDIABRADO. It opens very much as THE ACE-OF-SPADES MURDER did, with the discovery of a body under grotesque circumstances a generation before the main action begins. In CRAZY CORPSE the body is fished out of Lake Michigan in its own coffin and turns out to be two bodies, the upper half belonging to a Chinese woman and the lower to a black man, the halves joined together by some kind of greenish gum. (Long-memoried Keelerites will recall that the 1943 non-series novel THE CASE OF THE TWO STRANGE LADIES began somewhat similarly with the discovery of two beheaded bodies and two bodiless heads, one apparently a white woman and the other a colored lady.) No sooner has Harry set up this gruesome situation than he jumps ahead to the present and picks up MacWhorter brooding in his show wagon. Unless he gets a fast $3000 into his hands—in the form of $100 bills, each of whose serial numbers is evenly divisible by 13!—the entire circus will shortly be taken over by the sadistic retired lion-tamer Geispitz Gmohling, who feels the urge to get back in the ring and “crack the old whip again over the big pussies’ backs.” Gmohling has bribed Flamo, MacWhorter’s fire-eater, to spy on the circus from within, and Giff Odell, Angus’ young assistant who has the sorely needed cash, is hundreds of miles away searching for the solution to the Crazy Corpse conundrum and faces a rich assortment of obstacles in his race to rejoin the circus in time. By the end of the book Geispitz and Flamo have been banished into outer darkness, MacW’s young protege has found a wife and the mystery of the glued bodies has been solved, with a flurry of cerebrum-cracking revelations in the trademark Keeler manner.
Angus and his entourage came back for a fifth and sixth time in THE CIRCUS STEALERS (completed in 1956 and published two years later by Reus as LADRONES DE CIRCOS) and A COPY OF BEOWULF (completed in July 1957 and published three years later by Reus as UNA VERSION DEL BEOWULF). With those novels Harry finished the herculean task of recycling every previously unused tidbit from the original ACE OF SPADES manuscript. But he’d become so infatuated with his own creation that he continued to resurrect the circus as often as the spirit moved him. In his next big-top book, REPORT ON VANESSA HEWSTONE, completed later in 1957, Harry for some unaccountable reason gave different names and physical descriptions to all the familiar figures from MacW’s show, resulting in a fine filet of novelistic wackiness that might perhaps be classified as a para-McWhorter title. Then he dusted off the original Angus and his crew and brought them back for a seventh and eighth time in THE SIX FROM NOWHERE, which dates from 1958, and THE CASE OF THE TWO-HEADED IDIOT, which Harry completed in 1960 as his first wife Hazel was dying of cancer. For reasons we shall never know, Reus passed on these books also and they were published nowhere until Ramble House rode to the rescue.
Step outside for a minute. Do you hear a faint tootling sound overhead? It just might be MacWhorter’s calliope, up in the heavens, hailing the fact that, with THE CASE OF THE CRAZY CORPSE now available for the first time anywhere outside Portugal, the circus cycle is complete in English. Or at any rate in what Harry fondly imagined to be that tongue!
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