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KATS I HAVE KNOWN
by Fender Tucker
Harry Stephen Keeler can be considered one of the most frugal of authors. He figured that most authors who wrote a story and used it once it were missing out on a bet by not using the story twice—or more. He also figured that the more stuff he could pack into his novels that he didn’t have to write himself the better.
The Case of the Transposed Legs, written in 1947, is a classic example of Keeler’s frugality. Three of the chapters of that book, published by the infamous Phoenix Press, are comprised of a short story (“The Versatile Mr. Pan”) written by Keeler’s wife, Hazel Goodwin Keeler. The ruse used by Harry to justify inserting Hazel’s story is a classic one: the story has a code imbedded in it that will help Rudy Uberhulf, an enprisioned bank robber and murderer, escape. So, even though Hazel’s story has nothing to do with legs, transposed or otherwise, it takes up 19 pages that Harry didn’t have to write.
But Harry wasn’t content with only 19 pages saved; there was still another piece of writing that might contain the code. Instead of a short story that had nothing to do with the plot, how about a memoir about cats that has even less to do with the plot? Why not? It’s only a Phoenix Press book.
So Harry Keeler’s essay on his and Hazel’s feline friends makes up another 26 pages of The Case of the Transposed Legs. Technically he was not using it a second time because the essay was never published for profit previously, but it did represent 26 pages that Harry wouldn’t have to type to get his latest Phoenix Press title published. And it makes sense to the plot—sort of. The bank robber who’s desperately looking for the coded escape plans is cruel to Furbelly Wavetail, the prison feline mascot. It’s only fitting that he would have to rely on an essay about cats to effect his escape.
Keeler also performed one of the most amazing feats of self-reference in Transposed Legs. The essay, “Kats I Have Known” is by “Harry Stephen Keeler”, an author who has been proscribed by prison authorities because of his anti-authoritarian writings. Few authors have been so honored as to have their work denounced by brutish, slack-jawed prison wardens. The fact that Harry himself is the sole propagator of this “fact” only adds to the self-referential allure.
Harry Stephen Keeler wrote “Kats I Have Known” for himself and his literary friends, used it as fodder for his 1947 novel, and now it’s a work that stands on its own as a Ramble House 10-Cent book. It’s an odyssey of publication that any story would be proud to have taken. And with a beautiful cover by Gavin L. O’Keefe and the Ramble House aegis, it’s an addition to any library that will guarantee that Harry and Hazel’s love for their pride of cats will not be overlooked in future histories of mysteries.
Other authors may write about cats, but only Harry Stephen Keeler wrote about his kats.
And that’s—the difference!
Excerpt from Chapter XXII of
The Case of the Transposed Legs
Now, with hands almost trembling, Big Rudy took the thin black book—almost a slice of a book, it seemed—back to where he had been lying. He sat on the edge of the bunk, and stared at the book almost reverently.
Then he opened it gingerly, though at its front cover only. The inside of the cover and the first heavy sheet of the book were bright blue, showing up by contrast alone the loose mimeographed dull white sheet of sulphite paper which lay there, and at which Rudy glanced more or less unseeingly. The sheet was numbered 24-b and was headed just “Proposed Reading.” It carried, Rudy noted, as the first of some twenty-five books listed on it, a book entitled How to Keep Dogs as Your Friends. To this he gave but a sour grimace, and turned on to the pristinely white title page. This read merely:
KATS I HAVE KNOWN
O. O. Orange
O. O. Orange!
This was the phoney handle old Peepins admitted he had made up to keep the fool book in this prison library. Otherwise—“Keeler”! Keeler—who had once evidently took his kick off a bar-rail long enough—probably, anyway—for ain’t that what writers all are—gin-hounds?—took his kick off a bar-rail long enough to write a fool book about cats! Keeler—who evidently must have a frau—for her name had served bee-oot-i-fully to git the valuable name through. And she actually existed—so Caldwell had said. Keeler an’ dame, eh, writers? Keeler an’ dame—nuts to you both, Keeler an’ dame. Didn’t know, did you, you two fine typewriter-tappin’ crumbs, that some day you’d both be helpin’ to spring the murderer of Banker Nelson out of the stir? Nuts to you both!”
He flipped open the book to a point a few pages beyond its beginning. He nodded satisfiedly, particularly as he saw the big generous type in which it had been set. He turned back again to the title page and sighed ecstatically.
“The—the way out!” he was saying, downright reverently, though to himself alone. “The way out—for Big Rudy! No less. For gosh, Old George wasn’t no pipe-dreamin’ cokehead. He was a smart bird. He even built this here stir—at least, this here old section. He drawed the very plane, an’ seed it built. An’ when a guy like that says he’s got the ‘out’—the whole 24-carat ‘out’—got it he has all right, checked an’ confirmied an’ everything—twenty ways across the board. Yep, he had it: and what he had is all mine now. And so—to hell with that identification up in C.C. For by the time they start checkin’ that stiff’s ivories—and his fillin’s an’ crowns an’ what-not—with that record card, they’ll be one thing absent in the pic for everybody concerned. The same bein’—Rudolph Uberhulf, Esquire! Who’ll be non estee—went—missin’—and completely vanished into the Limburger of the Unknowed. Yowsah!”
Flopping back on his bunk, he turned the simple title page and started in on Page 3, where the actual text began. He proceeded to read, with the greatest of care—and not skipping a single word—that curious monograph on cats, the full and entire reading of which would mean that he would not have to remain in prison any longer—not even for a single full night; and that the Swodock stiff up in C.C. could be legally identified seven ways across the board.
For he, Big Rudy, would be out! And not just “out,” but, in the face of certain careful plans he had long ago made for just the contingency of sorry day perhaps being unexpectedly “out” due to a crush-out or a walk-off, he would be so completely vanished from the sight of the Law that seven Central City Detective Bureaux, seven F.B.I’s—and even seven Scotland Yards—would not be able to find hide nor hair of him!
Thus Big Rudy carefully proceeded to peruse the work on cats that should, thus carefully perused, make one State’s Attorney up in Brook County tomorrow gnash his teeth together—and one prison warden who, for some fool reason, had “tightened up” the “stir,” like as if he was jittery of a break or walk-off, scratch his chin tomorrow mornin’ an’ say, “What the hell!”
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