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Francis M. Nevins
Harry Stephen Keeler created many series in his long career but only a few series characters. More often than not the central element in a Keeler series was not a human being but something else: a house, a book, a circus, an industrial plant, a skull. On the rare occasions when he did create a continuing character, he usually got tired of the man in a year or so and dropped him: Quiribus Brown, for instance, appears only in the novel THE MURDERED MATHEMATICIAN and the three “novellas” written around the same time (one of them by his then wife Hazel) and collected by Ramble House long after Harry’s death as THE CASE OF THE FLYING HANDS. The single exception to this rule was Keeler’s first and clearly his favorite series character, that ancient bedraggled universal genius and patron of homeless cats whose name is Tuddleton T. (for Travelstead) Trotter.
Exactly when Trotter first saw the light of print remains unknown. His earliest appearance between hard covers was in THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER (Dutton, 1931). But that literary doorstop of 741 closely printed pages was an expansion of a 65,000-word tale, “The Michaux Z-Ray”, which Harry had completed in 1915 and sold to a magazine for $100 the following year. Since his work records don’t reveal either the periodical that purchased first publication rights or the issue in which “Z-Ray” came out, we can’t be sure whether Trotter was part of the original or only of the vastly longer book version. In the novel he doesn’t come onstage till page 200, summoned by Chief of Detectives Callahan to solve the riddle of the Z-ray machine that is apparently responsible for a reign of havoc in Chicago—including the deaths of both Mrs. Hunter and her dog on Locust Street—and to sort out the small army of weirdoes who are after the gizmo. But before we see him up close and personal he gets quite a buildup in a conversation between Callahan and insurance magnate Carter Ellwood.
“[H]e’s my criminological scientist....a man who tackles crimes where science—or highly specialized knowledge—has been used....For Trotter, Ellwood, is a man who’s wise himself to chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, insanity, optics, medicine, X, Y, Z, P, D and Q rays as well as probably every other kind of rays there are, or might be supposed to exist. He knows the identity of every expert in the world on any given subject. And it’s he who works with us here at the detective bureau on all the cases of any nature that have to do with science and crime combined....He’s content to dabble in problems...for the pure love of solving the problem and nothing else....[T]he man’s got more information concerning crime and criminals packed away in his card index of a brain than our Bertillon cabinets....”
Clearly Trotter is Keeler’s take on Sherlock Holmes, who was still regularly appearing in new stories at the time (if you assume Trotter dates back to 1915). But when Callahan tells Ellwood that Mr. TTT is the author of a brochure entitled “Crime—Always a Motived Social Reaction As Well As a Motivated One,” we realize that there’s as much of Harry himself in the character as there is of Holmes. The distinction between motivation and motiving comes straight out of Keeler’s off-the-wall treatise THE MECHANICS (AND KINEMATICS) OF WEB-WORK PLOT CONSTRUCTION.
When Trotter steps into Callahan’s office he’s described as “a composite picture of a ruddy-faced English gentleman from one of Dickens’ books, and a caricature drawn by an artist on a comic valentine.” He’s about 65 years old, wears a tattered black cutaway coat and “a pair of old-fashioned, steel-bowed spectacles” and a batwing collar and soiled cuffs and mismatched socks, “a yellow one with circular stripes of tan, and a giddy red one with green polka dots!” Had there been a movie about Trotter, the perfect match for the part would have been W.C. Fields—provided the director could restrain him from muttering “Godfrey Daniel” and juggling with pool cues! Between Trotter’s appearance on the scene and the resolution of the MATILDA HUNTER riddles come another 541 closely printed pages, full of the bizarre characters and character-names and dialects and wacky coincidences that only Harry dared dream up. Lots of invented “facts” too. Notice, for example, how the romantic problems of Matilda’s whitebread nephew Jerry Evans vanish in an instant on page 737 with the confident scientific assertion that (as paraphrased by Keelerite Robert E. Briney) “if your mother had six fingers on one hand, you cannot distinguish between violet and black.” Yeah, right. For better or worse, that’s our Harry.
Between MATILDA HUNTER and the second Trotter novel, Keeler’s style had evolved from the Dickensian and near- documentarian mode to the eccentric patois that cost him much of his readership over the years and drove him from the prestigious publishing house of E.P. Dutton to (if I may coin a Keelerism) the bottom rung of the literary barrel, a.k.a. Phoenix Press. In THE CASE OF THE BARKING CLOCK (Phoenix, 1947), social outcast Joe Czeszcziczki (whom everyone mercifully agrees to call Zicky after a few pages) is about to be executed for the murder of State’s Attorney Umphrey Ibstone and appeals for help to Trotter, now long forgotten and living in a cubicle in Chicago’s Hotel of Nameless Men. The woolly-headed old genius takes two-thirds of the book just to reach Zicky in the death house but proves Joe’s innocence in jig time and earns a comfortable retirement for himself and his beloved cat Sebastian Sixsmith. Harry’s London publisher Ward Lock came out with a longer and more involuted version of the novel in 1951.
Two years after issuing the U.S. version of BARKING CLOCK, Phoenix cut its ties to Keeler. Two years after issuing the English edition, Ward Lock did likewise, leaving Harry with no publisher in his own language. He continued to write direct for translation into Spanish and Portuguese, but even Instituto Editorial Reus of Madrid and Editorial Seculo of Lisbon passed on some of his submissions including THE TRAP. This third and final adventure of Tuddleton T. Trotter was completed on July 11, 1956 and is published here for the first time anywhere.
Connoisseurs of Keeler’s eccentric prose and people and plotting propensities—and if you aren’t one of them, what are you doing with this book?—will agree with me, I hope, that this is one of his daffiest late novels. Trotter is well into his eighties and has been “dead socially” for decades (like Harry himself), and only a few ancients with long memories recall his great triumph in the 25-year-old “Locust Street Murder Case,” i.e. THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER. His wardrobe is still atrocious and his wits still keen as he probes the murder of a Chinese laundryman in Oklahoma and the theft of a unique privately printed book of laudatory anecdotes about Harry’s favorite race (all of them, as a note informs potential publishers, made up out of whole cloth by Harry himself). Before Trotter triggers the titular trap and the murderer of Charley T’Seng is exposed—in the last paragraph, no sooner!—we get to wander in a webwork whose strands include a purple velour hat, a sleepwalking hillbilly, a vanishing glass of water, the Noodle King of Omaha, the cat Grimalky Stripedy-Pants and her five little kittens, a diamond implanted in a cancerous tumor, and....
I could go on for another page but—having just re-whetted my own appetite!—I think I’ll stop here and read THE TRAP once more. Won’t you join me?
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