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INTRODUCTION to THE STOLEN GRAVESTONE

 

Francis M. Nevins

 

Here’s an enigma for you, fellow Keelerite. THE STOLEN GRAVESTONE has never been published before, in English or any other language, yet you may already have read most of it.

How is this possible? Well, if you know your Harry, you’ve probably figured it out. He yanked much of this novel bodily out of previous novels.

According to his work records, he completed GRAVESTONE on January 30, 1958 and calculated its length as 74,000 words, although on the title page of the typescript he estimated 80,000.

Both figures are way off—unless you include, as Keeler clearly did, the material he retyped almost verbatim from earlier books.

The first five chapters of GRAVESTONE are brand new and very short—just 13 printed pages—and take place in and around an Omaha cemetery. To the tune of more ersatz-Scottish accents than you can shake a haggis at, Keeler introduces his latest puzzle: “Who stole the gravestone from the grave of F. Jansky, pastrymaker, and placed a pair of rubber boots thereon”—boots that were cunningly ordered in an ossified man’s name—“a poor devil lying rigid as a board, without hands or feet—a man who was once President of the Buf-falo, New York, Ethical Society.”

Having set up this conundrum, Harry proceeds to abandon it so completely that, as we read on, we might almost believe we had wandered into a different novel—as indeed in one sense we have!

Chapters VI through IX of GRAVESTONE, which occupy more than 90 printed pages, are taken almost verbatim from the first three chapters (pp. 7-52) of THE MURDERED MATHEMATICIAN (Ward Lock, 1949), in which the 7˝ foot tall detective wannabee Quiribus Brown wanders around Chicago’s Gyp Row and gets propositioned by an apparent prostitute who invites him up to a room in a sleazy hotel for confabulation over a bottle of ginger ale. Since the protagonist of GRAVESTONE is Saul Wing, a 6’ 4” Chinese who dresses like a North Woods lumberjack and speaks perfect Angry-Saxophonish, Keeler splices in an assortment of ethnic epithets for the army of racists along Gyp Row to hurl at our hero. He also changes the ending slightly so that the woman in the hotel room turns out to be not a missing heiress as in MATHEMATICIAN but—well, I’d be a toad if I gave away this episode’s only original feature!

In the tenth through twelfth chapters of GRAVESTONE we return to our mutton and Saul, who like his forerunner Quiribus Brown is desperate to become a sleuth—perhaps even the successor to Keeler’s previous Asian hero Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE!—sits in the office of Captain Frank Spelvin, very much as Quiribus did in MATHEMATICIAN, and receives a briefing about the riddle he needs to solve: the riddle of the missing stone, that is, and not the riddle of the other missing Stones—Communist tracts written by a Marxist millionaire using the pseudonym of Stensforth Stone!—whose trail has gotten snarled up with the Omaha enigma in typical Keeler fashion.

The 67 printed pages that make up Chapters XIII through XV of GRAVESTONE take Saul to a carnival at the edge of Chicago where he encounters Cyril Y. Gauntlett, the incredible ossified man himself, and the wonderfully dignified black poetess Olivia Debrevois who serves as his keeper. Most of this material comes straight out of Keeler’s THE SEARCH FOR X-Y-Z (Ward Lock, 1943), specifically Chapters II through VI of Book X-Y-Z where Ezra Jenkins, the hick farmer from Wauwaukauchee Lake, Wisconsin, encountered precisely the same characters and much of the same dialogue while searching for his vanished brother. Likewise the long conversation between Saul and Madame Debrevois in the lobby of the All Nations Hotel, which begins in Chapter XXIII of GRAVESTONE, borrows heavily–until it becomes plot-specific—from the parallel colloquy between the Madame and Ezra Jenkins in the lobby of Wiscon City’s Hotel Zum Alten Fritz in X-Y-Z. In GRAVESTONE, however, we are treated to two effusions from Olivia’s pure poetic pen—which, although Harry never credits his then wife Hazel Goodwin Keeler, sound very much like her sort of mystico-sentimental doggerel—while the much longer SEARCH FOR X-Y-Z is poemless. [Funnily enough, THE CASE OF THE IVORY ARROW (Phoenix, 1945), which is the somewhat shorter U.S. counterpart of X-Y-Z, includes a poem by Madame Debrevois alias Hazel which doesn’t appear in GRAVESTONE at all.]

From midway through the All Nations Hotel sequence till the end, GRAVESTONE focuses on the riddle of the missing marker and the rubber boots with which it began. The solution, hinging on yet another of Harry’s trademark wacky wills, is as daft as we have all come to expect in a Keeler novel. There are plenty of off-the-wall new characters and material in GRAVESTONE—from metaphysical speculation to Roman history to a Teutonic behemoth to a lucky masseur to a “fingerprint trust” (try that one on your friendly neighborhood estate planner!) to a sort of female Oliver Twist slaving away in a home for retired politicians—and, in the very last chapters, there’s even a love interest for Saul Wing, corresponding to the romance between Cheung and Loa Marling in Y. CHEUNG, BUSINESS DETECTIVE.

Despite these novelties, Keeler’s Spanish publisher Instituto Editorial Reus passed on GRAVESTONE—an understandable decision considering that the firm had already published EN BUSCA DE X-Y-Z in 1946 and had scheduled EL MATEMATICO ASESINADO for later in 1958. “No, no, my fr’an’,” we can almost hear Senor Rafael Martinez Reus telling Harry—assuming he rejected the book by trans-Atlantic phone call and spoke Keeler Spanglish! “You no can do thees theeng. To sell us book you leeft from books you sell us already ees not—how-you-Englize-say—not cree-kett!”

Never before and never afterward did Keeler recycle so much from earlier novels as he recycled from X-Y-Z and MATHEMATICIAN for THE STOLEN GRAVESTONE. But I suspect and predict that most of his readers will find it in their hearts to forgive our Harry as I have.

 

 

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