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THE CRIMSON CUBE
Francis M. Nevins
From its title alone most Keelerites would assume that THE CRIMSON CUBE was some sort of sequel to THE WHITE CIRCLE and expect to find yet another wacky version of science-fiction. Actually it has nothing to do with s-f and everything to do with the only series Harry ever wrote in which he made use of the work he did before he seriously took up writing.
In 1912, after spending about a year in a mental hospital to which his mother for vague reasons had had him committed, Keeler obtained an electrical engineering degree from Armour (later Illinois) Institute of Technology. During the next two years he lived at home, worked as an electrician in a South Chicago steel mill and wrote short stories on the side. After he’d sold a few, his mother—apparently feeling guilty about having stuffed him into the loony bin—offered to support Harry for a year so that he could quit his job and try to make it as a professional writer. That was when Keeler transitioned from short tales of a few thousand words apiece to the much longer and hugely complicated works which in later years he liked to call novellos.
One of his first contributions to that genre was “The Mystery in the Tippingdale Mills.” He completed the 20,000-word thriller in 1915 and, the following year, sold first serial rights for the then quite respectable sum of $50. Unfortunately his work records don’t reveal which magazine published it or the issue(s) in which it appeared, and the text itself has not yet turned up. The only thing we know about it for sure is that it drew on his steel mill experience.
Between pounding out ever longer novellos and editing various Chicago-based magazines like America’s Humor and 10-Story Book, Harry never needed to work again outside the words game. In the mid-1920s he began expanding his earlier magazine fiction into even longer and loopier novels like FIND THE CLOCK, THIEVES’ NIGHTS and THE AMAZING WEB. It took him about ten years to use up most of the raw material from his salad days, but in the early 1940s he discovered that he hadn’t yet made use of his old Tippingdale Mills novello and sat down to do so with a vengeance.
The result was STEELTOWN, a 209,000-word manuscript which he completed on February 12, 1944 and started breaking down almost immediately afterwards, reworking about half of it into the 107,000-word MURDER IN THE MILLS. Later that year he was paid $720 for British rights by his London publisher Ward Lock, which issued the novel in 1946. By this point in Keeler’s career his U.S. publisher was the bottom-of-the-barrel Phoenix Press, which paid him a lordly $45 advance and, also in 1946, issued a much less verbose but no less Keeleresque version as THE CASE OF THE CANNY KILLER. It’s clear to me that Harry did the cutting and rewriting himself—mainly because no one else could have.
In 1949 he turned the unused material from his 209,000-word manuscript into another novel, THE STEELTOWN STRANGLER. By this time even Phoenix had given up on him but, thanks to Ward Lock, he was still being published in his native tongue even if not in his native land. He received $603 for British rights and the book came out in 1950.
STAND BY—LONDON CALLING! (Ward Lock, 1953) was the last Keeler novel published in English in Harry’s lifetime, but he continued to crank out books as prolifically as if nothing had happened. From then until his death in January 1967 his principal market was Spain: to be precise, the Madrid publisher Instituto Editorial Reus, which had been putting out translations of his older novels since the end of World War II. In 1954 he added 30,000 words to THE STEELTOWN STRANGLER and called the resulting novel 24 SUSPECTS. Reus paid him its customary $50 advance and published the book four years later as 28 SOSPECHOSOS. To anyone wondering where those extra four suspects came from, I can only reply: Quien sabe?
Later in 1954 Harry revisited his steelmill memories yet once more and completed the final Tippingdale novel, which he called THE CRIMSON CUBE and which Reus issued in 1960 as EL CUBO CARMESI. It doesn’t seem to recycle any chunks of material from the previous Steeltown novels, but the topography of the Tippingdale plant is pretty much as it was in the earlier books and some of their characters pop up here too. Seth Hiatt still serves as president of the mills, Hamerson Hogg as chairman of the board of directors, and Oswald Sweetboy, a.k.a. No Kidding, as a worker on the linegang. Gwidar St. David, the Welshman who talks like a Scotsman and who functions here as good friend to chief chemist Stephen Malicot, will be familiar to readers of THE STEELTOWN STRANGLER as the friend of Malicot’s predecessor in that position, the cocoa-swilling pessimist Cardiff Fydrych. Yellow-bearded Wilkins Moneypenny returns as Tippingdale’s chief of police and Henry Mad-Henry as his deputy.
Other CUBE characters who don’t appear in previous Steeltown sagas nevertheless echo characters who do. Our proletarian hero Jack Q.X. Edminster, whose ethnic heritage and linegang nickname is “English” and who is actually Lord Jeffrey Stillingfleete, the lucky chap who, if he succeeds in fulfilling his father’s quazy qualifications—a big if indeed!—will become the richest man in the world, may trigger memories of lineman Kel Lauriston, the protagonist of MURDER IN THE MILLS, who because of a thimbleful of port just missed becoming the richest man in England. But the plot of CUBE is quite different from those of the earlier Steeltown books and introduces us to a host of new characters including Poss “Groucho” Thurkle, linegang foreman; Ebenezer Moggs, director general of The Great House Wiring Electrical Establishment and Plant, who insists on being addressed as “Mistah Niggah”; Brigadier General Woodmal Kitcherside, chief of the U.S. War Department (could Harry have thought that BG’s wore four stars?); Hark Jostock, chief of detectives in the metropolis of State City; Hambrook Hayhoe, general manager of a huge national news service; Goodsmith Tweedle, grand high mogul of the Stillingfleete Trust; and—how could I resist mentioning this one?—Dementia Transitoria Fixationis, not a person but a psychiatric condition that none but a wack like Harry could have dreamed up.
The plot of CUBE is fairly straightforward for a Keeler novel. There are three murders in the mills, in two of which the incognito Lord Jeffrey is himself the prime suspect, and at the end everything gets tied up into the usual neat-but-ridiculous package.
Of course, anyone expecting CUBE to be a whodunit in the Carr-Christie-Queen tradition of meticulous fair play with the reader has wandered into the wrong steel mill: the last time a Keeler novel gave readers a chance to solve the mystery ahead of the hero was never.
Have I whetted your appetite sufficiently? Good. You now have my permission to put me down and begin reading Harry!
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