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The White Circle
Y. Cheung Business Detective

Harry Stephen Keeler
Ramble House, 238 pages and 332 pages

The White Circle
Y. Cheung Business Detective
Harry Stephen Keeler

Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) was born in Chicago, where he lived most of his life. Raised in difficult circumstances, at age 22 Keeler was committed to an asylum for a short period by his mother. He attended the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and after graduating went to work as an electrician in a steel mill. But soon he was submitting stories to the pulps and began his lengthy writing career which produced some 70-odd novels. He also edited, with his first wife Hazel Goodwin Keeler, the then racy magazine Ten Story Book from 1919 until its demise in 1940. His first novel published in hardcover, a mystery, was The Voice of Seven Sparrows (1924). Keeler developed and perfected and even codified in a publication ["The Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction" in The Author and Journalist (1928)], the concept of the "webwork novel," a creation all his own, in which numerous plotlines were interwoven and finally resolved by a mad concatenation of utterly ludicrous coincidences, wacky wills, nutty laws, and biomedical miracles. With huge webwork novels like The Amazing Web (1930), The Matilda Hunter Murder (1931) and The Box from Japan (1932) Keeler was at his prime. By the late thirties his publishers were splitting his mega-novels, like the 350,000 word Marceau mystery published in 1936, as three titles: The Marceau Case, X. Jones - of Scotland Yard, and The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne, each a different solution to the same crime. And Keeler didn't stop there, confirming X. Jones' theory (though debunking his methods) in his Y. Cheung, Business Detective (1939), and proposing yet another solution in a chapter of The Chameleon (1939). By 1942, Keeler's American publisher, Dutton, had dropped him, and the small Phoenix Press only published him until 1948, his British publisher Ward, Lock dropping him in 1953. But Keeler continued to sell novels in Spain and Portugal, in translation. The White Circle written in 1954, but until now only published in Spanish, was to have been published by Fantasy Press in 1958, but never saw the presses as the publisher went bankrupt. Keeler had also written a number of novels and stories with science fictional elements, of which "John Jones' Dollar" (1915), and the novel The Box from Japan are the best known.

A comprehensive biography and study of Keeler can be found in:

as well in the pages of the Keeler News, the Bulletin of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society

H.S. Keeler Links

Ramble House, Publisher
Harry Stephen Keeler Society
About H.S. Keeler: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (in Spanish), 9 (in Swedish), 10 (in French)
Keeler E-TEXTS
Czech edition of Sing Sing Nights
REVIEW: The Box from Japan
List of Keeler titles in a bibliography of fiction set in Illinois
H.S. Keeler's gravesite

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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Harry Stephen Keeler, generally categorized as a mystery writer, certainly wrote some of the largest and weirdest mystery novels to grace the English language. Keeler has been compared to Ed Wood and Weird Al Yankovic, though in the former case it was pointed out that Keeler, if quirky, was at least talented and successful. A quick scan of Keeler links will yield one an enumeration of all of Keeler's literary quirks, along with why these very quirks work in his "wild and woolly world." What turned me onto Keeler, after reading volumes of very standard deductive detective stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, and Jacques Futrelle, was that one can never predict the resolution to a Keeler mystery. This is because Keeler will gleefully introduce a new character in the penultimate paragraph of a novel, only to show in the book's last paragraph, with flawless if incredibly contrived logic, that the character is the key to the entire preceding mystery. It is also fascinating, particularly in Keeler's larger webwork novels where numerous (and I mean numerous!) sub-plots intertwine into a seemingly untangleable post-feline-encounter ball of yarn, how Keeler manages to find a magical concatenation of coincidences, weird religious cults, wacky laws, convoluted wills, and gee-whiz scientific breakthroughs (amongst many other devices) to present a lucid and consistent solution to the whole mess. Oh, and yes, Keeler's use of English would send most creative writing instructors into convulsions, with similes like "It was like trying to think about the square root of minus zero."

Rule #1 of book reviews: Don't summarize the plot at length. OK, so now, in deference to Keeler having ignored all the rules of mystery plotting, I myself will break Rule #1 and bring you the plot and nothing but the plot. "Ahem," you say, "what about character development?" -- don't need it if you have plot the way Keeler has plot. "But what about setting and atmosphere?" -- no, no, no, you don't understand, Keeler is exclusively plot! So, if you'll bear with me, we'll visit the world of Keeler's "skience friction" title The White Circle (written 1954), with handy links to the Keelerism-type below

The White Circle begins with our young hero, Kirk Solfedge, facing quite a problem. Kirk had taken in a five-year-old street urchin, Winklejohn Green, for a week, thinking him an orphanage escapee. But the young Green, turns out to be a pathological liar ready to testify to anything. Judge Scheidt Harnishmacher is ready to dismiss the whole thing with a fine, but finds that Kirk, a draftsman, had published an article in Scientific American in which he stated German-designed machines to be "crazy" in design. Calling on his friend Dr. Schwickrath GeSchmaltz, author of the quack-psychiatry work The Monster in Modern Society, and professional expert-witness, the judge is planning to send Kirk up the river for good. Wait, did I mention that the first three chapters, where this information is conveyed to Kirk in a letter from the judge's secretary, have no bearing whatsoever on the remainder of the novel?

Kirk lives in a large carpeted room in an old rooming-house paid for him by the now deceased Professor Tiberius Heatherwick, M.S., Ph.D., who moved to America from Britain in order to touch an inheritance, and for whom Kirk has promised to carry out a scientific experiment in time-travel, to occur within a large white circle painted on the carpet in his room. This experiment is described in a manuscript written by Dr. Heatherwick, to which is appended a document, with copious footnotes, allegedly written by Master-Enlightener K-9999 (see here, near bottom, for full "name") a scientist from 2011 years in the future, or perhaps a hoax perpetrated on the professor by the science-fiction author "Scientifico" Greenlimb one time guest of the rooming-house -- all of which are read by Kirk in the "α-plotline," so to speak. Between the β and γ-level documents an in-depth discussion of time-travel theory ensues. Before embarking on his 10 minute trip ten years into the future, and back, Kirk, already a lucid dreamer, must take a 10 minute sleeping pill, which has the side-effect of giving a normal drugged sleeper particularly lucid dreams in which he can solve all his personal problems. When Kirk goes into the future and meets his landlady, a beautiful young blind woman, and himself in a seeming dream-state, is he dreaming or has he actually woken up for a period of time in the future? When he returns, he gets the girl and all his other problems evaporate. The White Circle isn't one of Keeler's best efforts in that it remains to some extent an undeveloped webwork novel, ending abruptly, without the usual, at least partial, tying up of loose ends. However, as the links show, it is replete with Keelerisms.

Y. Cheung Business Detective, a fairly short and fairly conventional mystery novel by Keeler standards, is nonetheless chock-full of Keelerisms. The young, clean-cut civil engineer and amateur cryptographer-turned business detective, Y. Cheung, can only claim $500,000 in inheritance from his grandfather if his name appears honourably and prominently in 1000 newspapers in the United States within a week of when the story begins. An old college friend, Harry Harven, hires Cheung to find out how a rival engineering firm is consistently underbidding them for jobs. Perhaps a chance to get his name in the news? -- no, he must sign a non-disclosure agreement, why? -- because Harven Sr. has recently given a speech espousing the racial inferiority of the Chinese and cannot be seen to be two-faced. However, Harven does have and lends to Cheung "The Marceau Manuscript" a document, actually a self-published interplanetary romance short story using Tarot cards and a telescope with a molecularly-polarized quartz lens as a means of intergalactic communication, to which the seemingly murdered André Marceau is said to have added an encrypted prediction of how he was to die. Cheung does some fairly conventional investigation, finally confronting all the suspects in the firms' office in classic mystery novel style. However, the tying up of threads leading to revelations of paternity, guilt, then innocence of one party, financial misdealings of another, and finally the surprise solution to the business leak will leave you gasping. But what of poor Mr. Cheung, enamoured of the lovely half-Hawaiian half-Caucasian secretary Loa Marling, about to forfeit his $500,000 inheritance, but bound by a non-disclosure agreement to not reveal anything of the case? His chance remarks to a newspaperman regarding his decryption and interpretation of the Marceau Manuscript has brought him nationwide acclaim and headlines, just in the nick of time.

Face it, you'll either adore Keeler or think he's the worst writer of the 20th century (add centuries here at your leisure). Personally, I delight in Keeler for his unfettered, utterly original and unduplicated approach to writing, for his infectiously happy goofiness, for his wonderfully awful similes ("For blackness -- unconsciousness -- poured over him. Like a Niagara Falls of Carter's Jet Black Ink."), and for mercilessly lampooning a literary genre that can at times take itself far too seriously. Both titles, presented in convenient pocket size editions from Ramble House, will give the neophyte a good idea of the Keeler experience, but know that the true Keelerite is not satiated by a mere 300-odd pages of Keeler -- expect to open a box from Japan and become entangled in Keeler's amazing web.

Keelerism Index (in no particular order):
  • Plot-driving/Plot-solving coincidences: Keeler is the master of the ludicrous but internally consistent coincidence, used both for creating situations and solving them.
  • The massive red herring: Keeler loved to insert long (hundreds of pages at times) tangents into the story, frequently with only the most tenuous relevance to the remainder of the story, though of course reserving the right to use a character mentioned in passing as the key to the entire novel.
  • The story within a story, within a story... : Keeler, fascinated with the construction of the Arabian Nights frequently presented such complex constructions with characters of stories within stories within stories emerging in each other's story layers (Keeler's novel Sing Sing Nights being such an example).
  • The names!: Keeler created characters with the most stunning names, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel, Xenius Jones, Ebenezer Sitting-Down-Bear, Rev. Dr. Callixtus Fearnaught, Aspenshade Cool-Donald, amongst many, many others.
  • Keeler heroes: Keeler heroes are invariably young, naive, squeaky-clean, penniless, and always caught up in some impossible situation that threatens their reputation, inheritance, romantic involvements and the like.
  • Multimedia "infodumps": Keeler frequently employs letters, wills, manuscripts (often several chapters in length), even photographs to conveniently bring in vast globs of information, completely ignoring the general injunction against infodumps.
  • The crazy will, promise or contract: One of Keeler's favourite tools was the will under which the hero must complete some ludicrous or near impossible task in order to inherit. Similar contracts or promises also abound in Keeler.
  • Meganovels - The Marceau Case: Keeler produced a number of several hundred thousand word novels, often split up by his publishers but retaining ties to and from each other and other Keeler novels. The Marceau case in which André Marceau is found strangled to death in the middle of his trackless croquet lawn, with only a few tiny footsteps around him, his last words being "The Babe from Hell" is solved differently in The Marceau Case, X. Jones of Scotland Yard, and The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne, and then solved differently again as an aside in Y. Cheung Business Detective and in The Chameleon.
  • Asylums and psychiatrists: Keeler frequently included scenes in asylums (e.g. The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro) and malevolent if nutty psychiatrists, presumably as a result of his experience of being committed by his mother in his early 20s.
  • Lengthy discussions of arcane science: Keeler abounds with weird if largely correct science, with lengthy infodumps of arcane physical, chemical or biological (especially genetic linkage) theory.
  • Chinese characters and "wisdom": Keeler while he lampooned almost every ethnic and racial origin in his novels, held a special place in his heart for all things Chinese, presenting Chinese characters in a positive light and using purported collections of Chinese wisdom such as "The Way Out" to solve or create characters' dilemmas.
  • Happy endings: Keeler's novels, in spite of all the tribulations of his heroes always end happily, and are generally optimistic about the world, very much in contrast to Cornell Woolrich, for example, who wrote over much the same period as Keeler.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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