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Francis M. Nevins


THE STREET OF A THOUSAND EYES is far from the last novel Keeler ever wrote but it was apparently the last novel to see the light of print in his lifetime, albeit only in Spain. It’s also—unless the typescript of THE SIGN OF THE CROSSED LEAVES can be magically transported to Shreve-port, Louisiana from its present resting place in the vaults of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department of Columbia University!—the last complete Keeler novel Ramble House will publish.

Thanks to Keeler’s work records and Walter Keyhole newsletters, we know quite a bit about this novel’s provenance. The original version, known alternatively as 14, TRINIDAD STREET or DANGER STREET, ran 52,000 words and was completed in 1951, but Harry did nothing with it. A few years later he added another 60,000 words—apparently including the endless expatiation on matters philosophico-mathematico-cosmological!—and finished the task on February 27, 1956. In 1959 or 1960 Instituto Editorial Reus paid him its customary $50 for Spanish rights, and several times over the next several years one of his newsletters huzzahs its imminent publication. As early as March 1961 he describes the book as “being first-published today in Spain and South America...” It wasn’t. In September 1962 he announces it as “now being type-set in Madrid...” It wasn’t. In October 1963 he describes it as “being published in Spain...” It wasn’t. Then in an April 1964 Keyhole he perpetrates an incomprehensible whopper, claiming that he “has just completed” the book! Finally, in August 1966, in the last Walter Keyhole known to exist and less than six months before his death, he says that “after many exasperating production delays in Madrid,” the book ”is being exclusively published today in Spain...” This time he got it right! The Spanish title is LA CALLE DE LOS MIL OJOS.

I could cobble together a summary of the plot, but why should I when Harry did it for me more than forty years ago? In September 1962 he told Keyhole recipients that it’s “about Joseph Fairweather, a mathematics instructor in a fashionable boys’ school on Astor Street, Chicago, who gets committed to Kankakee State Hospital for the Insane, for life, as a paranoiac, because he has discovered a strange characteristic of Space...” Apparently he hadn’t read his own manuscript for a while: Fairweather has long been retired at the time of the novel, and the loonybin to which he’s committed isn’t in Kankakee. He doesn’t mention that Fairweather (like Tuddle-ton T. Trotter and Quiribus Brown and other Keeler karack-ters) is a self-portrait, but the fact becomes obvious when, in Chapter II, the superintendent of the Chicago State Home for the Insane describes him as “one of the finest men I’ve ever known. Even though cracked. Deep, philosophical, mathe-matically minded, profound, proud—and kindly.”

As the September 1962 Keyhole goes on to report, THE STREET OF A THOUSAND EYES is also “about Eadgythe Whitchurch, a 17-year-old London trans-Atlantic phone op-erator, descendant of a Saxon queen, lying tied hand and foot and midriff in a Limehouse attic..., to be dunked quietly into the Thames at midnight because she has picked up, over her wire, a secret that threatens the happiness and security of...the Tong of the Lean Grey Rats Which Swarm the World!” The heroine’s name in the novel itself lacks the final “e” it has in this newsletter, but the good news Harry reveals here is that in this book our favorite exemplars of the Yellow Peril are ba-a-ack: not only supreme Ratmeister Hong Lei Chung, still sporting that “wisp of grey hair that fell Fu-Manchuially from his chin,” and his servant Yip Foy the one-eared poet, but also, making its first and (I think) only appearance in a Keeler novel, the dreaded London branch of the same tong! Of course, loving the Chinese as he did, Harry takes care to insert a counterbalance to this knot of yellow toads in the person of Chan Yu, the 96-year-old former professor of Chinese philosophy, history and language at London University, whose appearance in Chapter 34—although appearance is perhaps not le mot juste since the ancient sage is heard but never seen!—starts the balls in this literary pinball machine rolling towards a mind-boggling and (for Keeler) quite violent climax.

Discussing the novel in his September 1962 Keyhole, Harry describes its plot threads as ultimately “weaving together very nicely to pull Joseph permanently clear from having to dine on pig-liver stew and yellow cornmeal mush for the rest of his days, and Eadgythe from having—as her gloating Mongolian captors put it mellifluously—‘to nurse on the withered nipples of Old Mother Thames.’ ” This aspect of the novel seems to have reminded him of three hoary stage melodramas from his salad days, since he ends by calling the book a sort of “fusion of On the Spot, Chinatown Charley, The Lights o’ London, and an advertisement for a bust developer.”

Eleven months later he revealed to those lucky enough to be on the Walter Keyhole mailing list that THE STREET OF A THOUSAND EYES can never be published in English. Why not? Because, he explains, the Limehouse in which much of it takes place “was destroyed by Hitler; indeed, a housing development is going up on it right now. Why we should even have purposely penned a 160,000-word anachronism lies in the fact that when a novel bubbles in an author, he has to write it! The Spanish publisher does not know that Limehouse is gone, and he believes that we hold bullfights in Wrigley Field each Sunday.” Luckily no one at Reus was reading Walter Keyhole! The novel’s actual length is around 100,000 words, not 160,000 or, as Harry estimated in another newsletter, 180,000. Are my ears deceiving me or have I just heard a huge collective sigh of relief?

First published in the summer of 1966, THE STREET OF A THOUSAND EYES now joins the dozens of other Keelers, previously issued either only in Spain or only in Portugal or nowhere on earth, that Ramble House has selflessly made available to the panting public in English—or at least in Harry’s approximation of that noble tongue! If indeed this was the last new Keeler novel published anywhere in Harry’s lifetime, then its mountains of metaphysical speculation—positing a “Great Constructionist” who is clearly Harry him-self projected onto the universe as a whole!—and its jeremiads against the maltreatment of the (allegedly) mentally ill, and its gorgeous throwaway lines—my favorite being the one about the secretary who was so stupid she couldn’t spell par-allelopipedon!—and its lidiculous Oliental convelsations h’interspersed with h’outrageous Cockneyisms, and the slum-gullion of benevolent coincidence that runs riot through its final fifty pages, compel us to say: What a way to go!


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