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Francis M. Nevins


What you have here, fellow Keelerite, is one of the earliest products of Harry’s pen that you’re likely to see—a charming tale, full of pretzel-twists of plot and chaste young romance and pre-World War I atmosphere, and not in the least verbose like the brobdingnagians of HSK’s later years.

Keeler first set pen to paper in 1910, producing the 2700-word story “Telescopic Romance” which he never sold commercially, although he later published it in the Chicago Ledger, which he was editing at the time, and also included a much more long-winded version of the same tale as Chapters XVI through XXIX of his novel Y. CHEUNG—BUSINESS DETECTIVE (1939). After his release from the insane asylum to which his mother had committed him, he returned to writing and began to sell short stories (the longest only 4000 words) to various magazines. Late in 1914 he began developing the webwork plots which were to become his trademark, completing two short novels, “The Corpse at No. 38” and “The Trepanned Skull,” which sold in 1915. From this point on his output became longer and more densely plotted by the day. He completed “The Stolen Finger” and “The Michaux Z-Ray” in 1915 and four more novellos (as he came to call fiction of this length) the following year. “Misled in Milwaukee” was his title for the shortest of the quartet, which weighed in at about 26,000 words and sold in 1917 to an unidentified magazine that paid him $65 for first publication rights. Five years later, as “The Search for Xeno,” it was included in the December 1922 issue of 10-Story Book under the byline of York T. Sibley—a bit of deception Keeler thought prudent because the editor to whom he’d sold the reprint rights was, of course, himself! Almost forty years later Harry completely rewrote the tale— eliminating the 1916-era shirt collars that are crucial to the plot and splicing in some references to the atomic bomb and other feeble attempts to update—and, as “Adventure in Milwaukee,” included it with two other tales of the same length in a package he sent to his Spanish publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. The collection of THREE SHORT NOVELS was never published even in Spain. For the present book Ramble House has tacked the title as it appears in that late typescript to the text as it appeared in 10-Story Book back in 1922.

What makes this tale almost unique in the Keeler Kanon is that Harry never recycled its plot. Or did he? “Whoa, Tilley!” you might well say to yourself after reading a few pages. “A young hick from Wauwaukauchee Lake, Wisconsin, who takes a train to the big city to find the vanished brother whose name begins with an X and whose signature he needs on a deed to the farm they jointly own...I’ve been down this path before!” And indeed you have, sort of—at least if you’re familiar with the Keeler novel published in England as THE SEARCH FOR X-Y-Z (1944) and in the U.S. as the much shorter THE CASE OF THE IVORY ARROW (1945). But Harry himself was aware of this issue, and addressed it in a note to his long-suffering Spanish translator Fernando Noriega Olea which survives as part of the THREE SHORT NOVELS typescript.


To Senor Noriega: This is not a condensation of THE SEARCH FOR X-Y-Z. The two stories only start out somewhat similarly in their opening scenes.


Those who have read THE SEARCH FOR X-Y-Z will surely agree that Harry told the exact truth.

Since this is a short novel, I’ll keep my introduction short too. If late Keeler is just too wacky for you, you’re sure to enjoy this early effort. It’s as close to normal as Harry ever got.




Introduction to THE BLACKMAILER

Francis M. Nevins



You won’t find the word in any dictionary but you see it again and again in the correspondence, newsletters and how-to-write tomes of Harry Stephen Keeler. He used it to describe the tales he wrote that were too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novels. Everybody else called such works short novels, or novelettes, or novelets, or novellas. Not Harry. It’s possible, of course, that he meant to call them novellas but never learned how to spell the word right. His manuscripts are rife with such misspellings: observor for observer and calcomine for calcimine, just to name two. But I prefer to think he coined the word deliberately. And I also like to think that, if and when he used it in conversation, he coined his own pronunciation too: not noVELlo but NOVello.

No one can say just when he started calling his mid-length works of fiction by that name, but we know he began writing them very early in his career, completing three (“The Corpse at No. 38”, “The Trepanned Skull” and “A Rise in Value”) in 1914 and selling them to various magazines the following year. THE BLACK­MAILER is the last novello Harry ever wrote and apparently the only work of fiction (except for the short-short story “Goodby Coppers!”) he was able to write between the death of his first wife Hazel from cancer in 1960 and his marriage to the former Thelma Tertza Rinaldo in 1964. He finished the tale on October 14, 1961 and put it together with two very early novellos that he had never blown out to full length, hoping to sell the package to his Spanish publisher. Instituto Editorial Reus passed on it and the typescript sat forgotten for decades. Ramble House has published the first two component parts of the package as separate volumes (THE FLYER HOLD-UP and ADVENTURE IN MILWAUKEE) and now, with THE BLACKMAILER, makes it a threesome.

It’s one of the shortest of Keeler’s novellos, and—with only four onstage characters and a story made up almost entirely of long-winded conversations about offstage events—it’s completely typical of his late manner. No one but Harry could have devised THE BLACKMAILER’s plot. An eccentric Asian millionaire, a will written on the inside of one of three identical Chinese ceremonial drums, a devious woman lawyer, an absurd U.S. government department dreamed up by Harry ex nihilo, a small town in New Jersey which offers instant marriages to total strangers, an off-the-wall legal rationale for the need to track down the real name of the dissolute playboy Adelbert Scatterday Fothergill-Starkweather—known to his café-society friends as The Fish!—all this and many more trademark HSKisms are packed into less than 75 printed pages, which also feature the last bow of our old pal Hong Lei Chung, grand poohbah of the Tong of Lean Grey Rats!

If reading THE BLACKMAILER gives you a sense of deja vu, it’s because you’ve read Harry’s novel THE SIX FROM NOWHERE, which was completed in 1958 but published nowhere until the Ramble House edition of 2001. The final chapter of that gem of wild woolliosity uncorks an eccentric millionaire, plus a set of three wills—two of them attested by the same witnesses and one but only one of the two leaving a fortune to the Lean Grey Rats!—plus a fatal accident on the way to a New York lawyer’s office, plus a dissolute New York playboy named Garpow Spinner who, like Adelbert in THE BLACK­MAILER, is precisely 43 years of age—although no one refers to him as The Fish! Anyone who finishes THE BLACKMAILER and doesn’t see that it’s an offshoot or afterbirth of THE SIX FROM NOWHERE sees, if I may borrow one of Harry’s favorite phrases, like a toad at noonday.

If you disagree, send me an e-mail and hold your breath till I send you a rebuttal—replete with clauses between dashes, and generously larded with exclamation points!


Introduction to THE FLYER HOLD-UP

Francis M. Nevins

 When did Keeler first dream up the unique kind of story structure that he continued to toy with till his death? We who love the wacky webwork world and the world-class whippo who created it should be celebrating that day every year. But, for the simple reason that no one knows precisely when the breakthrough came, we can’t.

His work records show that it happened in 1914, the year when he began to take off as a writer, completing 21 stories plus a 1-act play—92,000 words in all, including his two best known and most often reprinted short tales, The Services of an Expert and John Jones’ Dollar—and selling eight of those stories plus one he had written the year before, for a grand total of $88 in income from fiction. Apparently Harry’s record book organizes the data on his works in the order of their completion. The first seventeen entries for 1914 cover five tales of between 3000 and 4000 words apiece and twelve much shorter pieces. Then, probably rather late in the year, comes the entry for a 19,000-word tale he originally called The Corpse at No. 38. TA-DA! Something new under the sun is born. Keeler spent most of the next ten years writing increasingly longer and more brain-boggling specimens of webwork fiction. Later he recycled almost all of them. Some he kept at roughly their original length and incorporated into books like SING SING NIGHTS, others he expanded to gargantuan proportions and published as meganovels like THE MATILDA HUNTER MURDER and THE BOX FROM JAPAN. His first venture into the form he never recycled at all.

We know from his records that THE CORPSE AT NO. 38 sold in 1915 for $50, which means he was paid a bit more than two cents a word. To what magazine did he sell it? In what issue and under what title was it published? Since Keeler's records don't provide that information for any of his stories, no one knew the answers to these questions—until just before Ramble House published this little book. Now we know that it first appeared in four installments of the CHICAGO LEDGER (No. 49, 4 December 1915, through No. 52, 25 December 1915) under the scrumptiously old-fashioned title “The Flyer Hold Up; Or, The Mystery of Train Thirty-Eight.” A few years later Keeler himself would become the editor of the LEDGER but it seems that he wasn't connected with the periodical at the time of this sale. Did he later reprint the “novella” in his own magazine 10-STORY BOOK as he did so much of his early short fiction? All we can say for sure is that if there is an issue that contains this tale, it hasn't surfaced yet. Several decades after its first publication—in 1958, to be precise—Harry apparently realized that he still had in his files a couple of unrecycled stories from his salad days and, using the title THE FLYER HOLD-UP, included it in a collection of three short novels which he hoped to sell as a package to his Spanish publisher Instituto Editorial Reus. For reasons we shall never know, Reus passed on this one. But the text as Keeler retyped it in 1958 survives, and the recently discovered material from the CHICAGO LEDGER demonstrates that he made only a few minuscule changes forty-odd years later: Mrs. Blair and Rosalie morph from mother and daughter to aunt and niece, and the word “Gasoline” is added to the business name of the Hartland Plow Company. Thank heaven Keeler didn't try to interpolate new material so as to fool readers into thinking the tale was written in the 1950s! The delicious details of pre-World War I train and auto travel give the story a special cachet that I for one would hate to have lost.

THE FLYER HOLD-UP was Harry’s first foray into webwork but offers a surprising number of what we have come to know and love as his hallmarks. We have the whitebread protagonist around whom things happen—note that he gives his age as 25, almost exactly Harry’s own at the time!—plus a host of characters who are talked about but never come on stage, plus the occasional dollop of dialect, plus—last but far from least!—the deliciously screwball plot. Why did thieves raid the Chicago Flyer and steal nothing but the coffin containing the body of a young man who had died accidentally in Denver? What’s the connection between the robbery and the educated hobo known as Eastern Slim who was hitching a ride on the same train? Why when recovered does the coffin yield the body of a young woman in man’s clothing—a woman who had clearly died a violent death? The answers to these and other questions expose a karakteristik Keeler Krazy Kwilt of Koinkydink guaranteed to keep his readers kackling. True, FLYER isn’t as audacious as Harry’s later contributions to his self-created genre. Had he written it just a few years later it would certainly have been much longer and more complex. Take Don Carson’s girlfriend, for example, who plays no part in events and doesn’t even have a name. In mature Keeler she would have had a father or a brother, maybe both, and she and he or they would have been just as deeply ensnarled in the web as everyone else. And if FLYER had been written a little further along in Keeler’s kareer, the elements that might be described as lumps in its plot—like the misleading note in the pocket of dead body number one and the unexplained presence in the boondocks of the person who became dead body number two—would have been both motivated and motived to a fare-thee-well.

But in these decadent days when so many novels are ten times as long as THE FLYER HOLD-UP and at best one-tenth as complex and ingenious, you hold in your hands a delightful morsel indeed. Cherish it.



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