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The Case of the Horrifying Mystery Writer

Dust jacket for 'The Monocled Monster'
Dust jacket for 'The Monocled Monster'
Harry Stephen Keeler
Harry Stephen Keeler

Author Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote more than 70 books of what he called "webwork" fiction -- mystery novels with highly complex, luridly bizarre and nearly inscrutable plots.

Keeler, who lived most of his life in Chicago, was the man behind such titles as The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, The Barking Clock and The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman. Among the characters populating his work: political boss Criocan Mulqueeny, Chinese xylophonist Ichabod Tsung and the infamous Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel.

But Keeler's convoluted plots were the ultimate expression of his skill. He was known to grab a random selection of newspaper clippings from his extensive collection and begin weaving the stories together, often with ludicrous connections.

To make things even worse, Keeler's narrative is filled with blind alleys and digressions. And the author frequently introduces essential characters in the final pages of his books -- one even reveals the killer in the last sentence.

Among the classic Keeler plots:

X. Jones of Scotland Yard: A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter.

The Case of the Crazy Corpse: The police dredge a coffin out of Lake Michigan. Inside is a nude body, the top half of a Chinese woman, the bottom half of a black man. The two halves are joined with a green gum.

As with many pop cult figures, Keeler is now considered so bad, he's good. Some of his biggest fans are writers and editors who revel in the way he breaks all the rules.

First-edition Keelers, long out of print, have sold for up to $300. Independent publisher Ramble House has recently started to offer several Keeler titles in paperback.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksWeekend Edition Saturday
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.