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THE STRAW HAT MURDERS
Francis M. Nevins
In the early 1950s Keeler’s career as a writer was in a death spiral. He had lost first a major and then a distinctly minor U.S. publisher (Dutton and Phoenix respectively) and would soon lose his British publisher Ward Lock. In his own wacko way he worked desperately to adapt to new markets and new styles. Seeing that science fiction was enjoying boom times, he tried his hand at that genre. The result was a series of commercially impossible novels about a house—the very house which now, long after Harry’s death, is publishing them! Seeing that the police procedural represented the new wave in detective fiction, he tried his hand at that genre too. The result was another string of commercially impossible novels, each featuring a different Chicago police detective as the main character but having about as much relation to, say, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series as a toad has to grand opera. The first of these books to be issued by Ramble House is THE STRAW HAT MURDERS, which has never been published anywhere until now, not even in Spain where he remained in print almost until his death.
It was completed on October 14, 1958 and, weighing in at roughly 48,000 words, is one of the shortest novels he ever wrote. If offered by a trade-book publisher today, it would probably be blurbed as dealing with a big-city cop’s hunt for a serial killer. Which would be a technically accurate description but wildly misleading. It opens on a street under an abandoned Elevated line as Huntoon Cambourne, British-born chief of homicide in Chicago’s police department, is parking his car on the way to investigate a telephone message from patrolman Aert de Gelder: “S.O.T! No. 633.” None but a Keeler Kop would have made such a cryptic report but Cam-bourne has had no trouble deciphering it. “For what could ‘S.O.T.’ stand for but ‘Same Old Thing’?” Clearly there’s been yet another homicide in the piano studio on the third floor of the warehouse building at 633 South Street.
“Yes, the Straw Hat Murderer—killer of four pianists—must have struck again. Springing—the crazy fool!—across that 7-foot gap in the roofs, three stories up—to get to the single and only ingress that could bring him into the murder studio, the roof trap. Must have struck—unless, perchance, ‘S.O.T.’ stood for something like—like ‘Samuel O. Torber’—or ‘Saul O. Tabwith’—at 633 Wabash Avenue—or 633 Dearborn Street —or—
“But if he had struck again, Cambourne reflected, leaving the car, had he again left behind him the straw hat which, apparently, he wore, or carried, to every killing, rain, snow, shine, or sun? And had he, as in the last four cases, contemptuously, trium-phantly, dropped his usual $20 goldpiece into the repository of the blind, deaf beggar around the corner, to mark his own flight to the [nearby railroad] depot? And thus make evident to the police the sheer futility of search for him? This latter being a theory, only, of Cambourne’s.”
The building is owned by Max Goldfarb, who runs a secondhand office furniture store across the street as had his father Emmanuel and his grandfather Abraham before him. Emmanuel had bricked up the front entrance and all the front windows of the warehouse so that the only way in is via the back door, which is secured by an impenetrable lock. His will had specified that the room on the third floor must be preserved as is, complete with the $3000 grand piano on which after his wife’s death he had played the songs she had loved, so Max had advertised in Chicago’s foreign-language newspapers that the studio could be rented cheaply by piano students. Even after his tenants began getting knocked off—Robert Hordon and Charles Amodie stabbed in the back, Gustav Einhorn shot at point blank range, Louise Wanstreet strangled, and a straw hat of a different size and style found near each corpse—Max kept the killer’s apparent method of entry unsecured because under the fire laws he’ll be fined $1000 and sentenced to a year in jail if he nails up the roof trap. We learn all this and more, including the fact that a new $20 gold piece has been dropped into the receptacle of blind and deaf Piggy Bank Pete, before Cambourne clambers over the rooftops in imitation of what he takes to be the killer’s modus operandi and discovers that the fifth tenant, Elftherios Paleogus, has become the fifth victim—and that a fifth straw hat is in the murder room. When he can’t solve the crime, Cambourne is fired and returns to England where he rises to high position at Scotland Yard. All this happens in the first 72 pages of typescript, and only then do we learn that those pages did not take place in the present, as until this point we had every reason to assume, but twenty years in the past; which means, considering the date of the book’s composition, around 1938. Careful readers will note that in his efforts to fool us Harry didn’t play quite fair: the European conflict of 1914-18 was never referred to as World War I until, at the very earliest, the outbreak of World War II!
Chapters 15 through 18 propel us forward ten years, roughly to 1948. A man in blue spectacles, who has no connection with the hero of Keeler’s classic THE SPECTACLES OF MR. CAGLIOSTRO but used to be a world champion standing leaper with the nickname of The Human Frog, spends $20 on a long-distance phone call from Chicago to Cambourne’s office at Scotland Yard and claims to be the Straw Hat killer. The caller’s name is Steward Pann but the manuscript shows that originally it had been Peter Pann. Imagine Harry chang-ing a character’s name because he thought it was too bizarre! The final chapters take place yet another decade later. In an endless conversation at London’s Carlton Club with his childhood friend Guy Standidge, who’s spent most of his life in faraway Kenya, Cam-bourne explains the true solution of the Straw Hat murders, which kulminates in the kind of Koindydink that Harry’s fans have come to love him for.
Keeler does slip up here and there on points of motivation and motiving—how the murderer got hold of all his weapons is disposed of in a few perfunctory and speculative lines—but blesses us with some fine specimens of eccentric prose, two of which are worth sin-gling out. He describes a multi-deck parking structure as “[o]ne of those places...where cars wind up and up and around—for 3 stories up sometimes—with white concrete ramps that look like strands of giant spaghetti....” Later he evokes a classical pianist at practice. “[T]he majesty—the very staccato trippery of his playing, here and there, showed that his whole ten fingertips must have been virtually little lambs, gamboling, playing hop, skip and jump—dancing the light fantastic, upon a green consisting of monotonous oblongs that formed a keyboard....”
THE STRAW HAT MURDERS is the only Keeler title I can recall in which a family of Jews figures prominently. If one were to judge solely by the portrayal of Max Goldfarb—“dark and swarthy, with a huge beak of a nose and glittering black eyes” and “unusually thick lips”—it would take a Johnnie Cockroach to get Keeler acquitted of anti-Semitism. But precisely because the plot seems to require one stereotypical Jewish character of the worst sort, Harry goes out of his way to emphasize that the rest of the Goldfarbs are (living or dead) saints. “Max, your father . . . was, from all I hear, the finest old man this block ever had. . . . You, Max, are greedy—self-seeking, and, in some ways, a murderer.” Late in the book Cambourne makes it clear to his pal Standidge that Max’s little daughter Rose from the early chapters, now grown up and married to a man named Yudelson, rivals her grandfather in wonderfulness. And at the climax Keeler even makes a stab at explaining anti-Semitism. “All hatreds of the Jewish race, Guy, stem out of the fact that one Jew has injured the hater sometime in the past. Then the whole race gets hated—by the victim.” I can’t help suspecting that STRAW HAT was never published in Franco’s fascist Spain precisely because all but one Jewish character was so admirable.
Late in life Harry seems to have developed a genius for choosing the road through the yellow wood that no one in his right mind would travel by. His stabs at s-f and the police procedural are wacky to the point of un-publishability—except of course by Ramble House!—and when he fiddled with serious issues like anti-Semitism he left himself wide open to misinterpretation. But then, if the novels he wrote in his last years had been conventionally acceptable, he wouldn’t have been our Harry. In THE STRAW HAT MURDERS, as you are about to see, he is quintessentially himself.
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