Richard A. Lupoff


Anyone old enough to remember the Golden Age of Radio, upon hearing Noel Coward’s lovely, melancholy composition “Someday I’ll Find You” will inevitably smile. Assuming portentous tones of a classic radio announcer, your old-time pal will solemnly intone, “Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.” The song was played without lyrics, but everyone knew what it meant.

Yes, Mr. Keen had a remarkably long life as a radio detective. Ably assisted by his muscular, albeit none too bright, assistant, Mike Clancy, “the kindly old investigator,” as he was inevitably referred to, would help grieving survivors locate missing heirs of deceased millionaires, weeping wives find absent husbands, old sweethearts find disappeared lovers.

And, oddly, more often than not it turned out that there was a murder involved, and Mr. Keen would track down and confront the killer in the course of locating the missing individual.

The radio show enjoyed its inaugural performance on October 12, 1937, on what was then known as the Blue Network. The curtain was rung down for the last time on April 19, 1955, by which time the program was carried on CBS. If dramatic radio had not been in its dying days as sponsors moved their dollars from radio to television and brought their audiences along with them, “Mr. Keen” might be on the air to this day.

As it is, several dozen of the hundreds of shows broadcast in those seventeen years survive and circulate over the internet and as the wares of assorted peddlers. An hilarious send-up by radio’s Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding captures some of the charm of the old radio show. The late Jim Harmon’s hilarious one-man recreation of a “Mr. Keen” broadcast unfortunately was apparently never recorded, but those who enjoyed Jim’s performance in person hold a treasured memory.

The knowledgeable John Dunning gives “Mr. Keen” a detailed although not altogether kindly write-up in his 1998 Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Dunning credits the creation of the show to the prolific husband-and-wife team of Frank and Anne Hummert, with the actual writing performed by staff scripters.

Apparently Dunning is unaware that the series was based on a 1906 book by Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933), a prolific author of nearly forty books. In addition Chambers picked up some two dozen film credits as writer.

Originally trained as an artist, Chambers succeeded as a young man as an illustrator for popular magazines. He apparently found writing more to his liking and began a second career, as novelist and short story writer, with a romantic volume set in Paris. This was called In the Quarter (published 1894). His most famous book, The King in Yellow, followed the next year. A cycle of strange stories about a mysterious drama of that name, the book achieved a kind of underground following and remains controversial among Lovecraftians and other aficionados of the macabre.

The Tracer of Lost Persons was Chambers’ third book, published in 1906. It concerns Westrel Keen, a private detective of the variety later called a skip tracer. Anyone seeking a lost person could apply to Mr. Keen. For a fee, Keen would find the missing individual, living or dead. He stated that he would take no fee unless he succeeded, and he succeeded every time. He was also a man of remarkably broad and often esoteric education, the background of which was never revealed.

Keen’s organization is shadowy but apparently large. One sees a staff of efficient young women busily at work in the offices of Keen and Company, updating or researching files, transcribing shorthand notations, pounding out reports on typewriters. Mr. Keen himself is indeed that proverbial “kindly old investigator,” courtly of manner, modish in dress, with an elegant gray moustache and thick hair. Mr. Keen’s dialect-spouting Irish assistant, Mike Clancy, seems to have been an invention of the Hummerts. There is no indication of his presence in the book.

Mr. Keen also appears to have a large staff of field investigators at his command, ready to assume disguises as required and to leap into action upon command. One wonders if Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow, had read The Tracer of Lost Persons in his youth.

The cases that Chambers describes are mostly romantic rather than criminous in nature. Mr. Keen would seem to be more a matchmaker than a detective, but some of the later cases in the book are of a more lurid nature. One concerns a secret code and involves spirit photography. Another reverts to the supernatural elements introduced in The King in Yellow, this time drawing upon Egyptian magic and the notion of ancients revived in modern times after a sleep of thousands of years. Clearly, Chambers anticipated both the great Universal mummy films of the 1930s and Ibis the Invincible and his Princess Taia in the comic books of the 1940s.

Mr. Keen’s world of 1906 stands on the cusp of the modern and the Victorian. The ladies in the book’s illustrations wear the graceful, sweeping gowns of long ago. Yet there are telephones and electric lights and recording machines and typewriters. But there are apparently no automobiles in the streets, no radios or motion pictures or aeroplanes (although the Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk three years earlier).

The relationships between men and women are remarkably tentative and chaste. The plots are obvious. The charm of the book lies at least in part in its very naiveté. To read The Tracer of Lost Persons is to return, at least for a few hours, to a world that was actually simpler, kinder and gentler than our own.

— Richard A. Lupoff