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by Francis M. Nevins

During the last decades of his life Keeler found it increasingly hard to keep his publishers. In the United States he was dumped by Dutton in 1942 and taken up by the marginal Phoenix Press, which in turn dumped him in 1948. He never found another U.S. publisher in his lifetime but his novels continued to be published in England by Ward Lock until 1953 when that house too said ta-ta. Ten novels that he couldn’t find a home for in his native language were published as Spanish originals by Instituto Editorial Reus of Madrid and two more as Portuguese originals by Editorial Seculo of Lisbon. But by the time of his death in 1967 Keeler had completed another thirteen novels that were never published anywhere in his lifetime and, were it not for Ramble House, would never be seeing the light of print at all.

One of these, and a special favorite of mine among the baker’s dozen, is the book he completed on April 17, 1959 and called THE MYSTERIOUS CARD.

Unlike so many late Keelers, this one is a stand-alone, with no obvious links to anything else in the Kanon and no signs that it was created out of a leftover chunk from a previous book. Even the writing seems different: held up against their counterparts in any other Keeler novel, the narrative is terse and economical and the dialogue staccato, so that one might almost believe he’d been momentarily influenced by Erle Stanley Gardner. Some elements of the storyline are also unique for Keeler. In what other novel of his do we find a murder committed before the eyes of his protagonist?

Not that THE MYSTERIOUS CARD isn’t instantly recognizable as a Keeler novel. Who else would offer such bizarre plot threads and krazy koinkydinks and outlandishly named characters speaking in outrageous dialects? With its nutty will and corrupt politicians and mixed-up murder trial—to which Harry denies us access except for the craziest colloquy between judge and jury ever imagined on land or sea!—this one is richer than most of his late novels in the webwork and wackiness we love him for. And it goes without saying that CARD also offers a host of paeans to the finest race the evolutionary kettle has evolved: the Chinese.

Which brings us to the subject of racism.

Keeler has taken a beating in some quarters for his views on race. Now it can’t be denied that in one of the multitudinous senses of the word he was indeed a racist or, to use his own term for himself, a raciologist. He thought that race mattered, that some races were superior to others. This conviction put him at odds with the progressive thought of the Forties and Fifties (my own formative years) but prophetically in sync with the Affirmative Action Faction that has dominated American culture since around the time of his death.

But Keeler had nothing in common with the American racists of his time. He did not privilege the white race but thought it far inferior to the people that produced Lao-Tze and Confucius. He not only filled his novels with positive Chinese characters but wrote two of them around Asian protagonists: Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE (1939) and THE STOLEN GRAVESTONE (1958). The latter title, describing the adventures of 6-foot-4-inch mathematical genius and detective wannabee Saul Wing, is yet another of those thirteen novels that never appeared in any language in Harry’s lifetime but that Ramble House will issue in due course.

Like a dog owner whose pet has made a mess, Keeler often rubbed readers’ noses in America’s traditional treatment of its minorities: not just Asians but Native Americans and physical freaks but also—at least in his final years, which were also the heyday of the civil rights movement—blacks. As our hero Tarlo Yuce searches desperately for the blank white card that seems to be worth a fortune and can save him from being executed for a murder he didn’t commit, three of the characters he encounters ought to be quite enough to dispose of the canard that Harry despised minorities: Professor Doctor Moggs, the black extra-sensory perceptionist (formerly Sam Moggs the Demon Juggler); his nameless young protege, a Shakespearean actor with an opera-trained voice whose skin color keeps him unemployed but who proves his acting skills in a way only Keeler could have dreamed up; and of course Madame Oi Lum Yuk, the wonderfully dignified Chinese lady who speaks perfect English and has seven—

Whoops, I can’t reveal that, now can I? Better that I get off the platform and let you immerse yourself in one of the most intricate and satisfying works of Keeler’s final years.

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