#402: The Affair of the Bottled Deuce (1958) by Harry Stephen Keeler

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Emboldened by the experience of The Rynox Mystery (1930) by Philip MacDonald from last week — an author with whom I started poorly and have come to really enjoy — I turn to Harry Stephen Keeler. The only other Keeler I’ve read to date was…fine, and I’ve been admittedly reluctant to begin this despite its locked room murder being why I bought it in the first place.  The superb introduction from Francis M. Nevins explains how and why this was unpublished in Keeler’s lifetime and only came into public being through Keelerite Fender Tucker’s Ramble House imprint in 2005.  As you gather from my rating, I’m of the opinion the public would’ve coped perfectly fine without it.

The setup itself is very good indeed.  It reads like the sort of low-rent pulp Nevins makes it clear was selling in droves at the time, and Keeler had been unpublished for no little while and so was arguably consciously providing what publishers wanted.  We open with a phone call to the police, a landlord reporting that the tenant who lives on the floor above him has shot himself in his locked apartment.  Through a crack at the side of the door the man’s body can clearly be seen, and a bolt on the inside of the door and padlocked mesh on the insides of the windows preclude an exit by anyone else who may’ve been present.  So far, so classic.

And so ‘Lousy’ Lou Ousely and Homer ‘Butterball’ Tomaroy — your pugnacious pulp cops of yore, double-act griping a speciality — are dispatched, break down the door, and find the dead man complete with gun in hand and the eponymous two of diamonds sealed up in a glass bottle.  A possible solution for the murder is posited, and we get occasional glimpses of how great a writer Keeler could probably be at times:

Lou looked down at the body seated at the table.  In but a few moments — vital moments for somebody right now, perhaps — while they had talked, talked, talked countless words of speculation, a “suicide” who had “suicided” because of receipt of a bottled deuce in the mails — had become a murder victim, representing merely a staged “suicide”.  And the minutes they’d talked around here, and speculated around here, had been perhaps vitally needed minutes — for the killer.

Following this opening third, we then veer off the rails, with Keeler seemingly constructing an experiment of how far he can push the reader’s patience before the book gets defenestrated.  It cannot be denied that Keeler has an ear for the argot of Lousy Lou and Butterball, but equally it cannot be denied that he has no idea how other people speak, with the overwhelming majority of the dialogue being sheer jabberwocky, at times only a step above lorem ipsum-esque “Man, I need to get this up to 65,000 words” stalling, and devastatingly irrelevant.  Most of his direction isn’t far off either, including a two-page chapter in which someone knocks on a woman’s door to inform her she’s required at the police station for questioning.  See how I just did that in, like, two lines?  You are welcome.

Most of the middle section is devoted to a steady unravelling of the narrative, or perhaps the mind of the author, including a savage indictment of the exact type of book Keeler was apparently — up until that point — trying to write.  And yet to a certain extent I can feel his frustrations: there is creativity enough in this setup and narrative that Keeler would be justified in venting his frustrations as a market that simply wanted to be flooded with cheap and disposable literature…but, equally, Keeler doesn’t really display any skill for writing anything but cheap and easily disposable literature.  A few wrinkles on the expected setup here place it as a narrative between a variety of stools — some EIRF, a dash of HIBK, stir in a Woman in Peril, the obvious Pulp connection, and a sniff or three of the sort of confounding puzzle that was losing traction but still had life in it yet (the gun the corpse is found holding turns out to be constructed of wax — goddamn, that’s brilliant, but Carr, Queen, Brand, Rhode, Lorac, Berkeley, Rawson, and others far less adept would have done so much more with it) — but ends up a book that sits on none of them.

I wonder if there’s a tendency to create a roseate picture of Keeler’s work because it’s hard to categorise, as if he was too great an artist for mere mortals to begin to comprehend.  The scant two books I’ve read just seem to lack focus, making it difficult to really engage with what’s happening — not too difficult to understand, but too unsure of itself to be worth the effort.  Maybe his imagination did overflow the boundaries of simple genre, fine, and maybe that’s a fault of genre itself, or of our tendency to wish to pigeon-hole something easily; but I challenge this perception of Keeler’s work that requires you the reader to be on the back foot when coming to what he wrote – that’s not how books work, certainly not ones intended to entertain.  I’m a mere two books in, as I say, but I already suspect that for what I want in the books I read — and for all the firebrand labels hurled at his output — actually Keeler just isn’t very good fit.  And I shan’t be rushing back to find out how wrong I could be, either.

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See also

Geoff Bradley @ Mystery*FileThis is particularly slow moving — a body found shot in a locked room is reported to the police on the first page of the book, but it’s not until some 50 pages later that the police arrive, and it’s even later when they realise that the gun in the supposed suicide victim’s hand is actually made of wax.   So it’s a locked room mystery with several of Keeler’s trademarks — the usual will, the magic tricks — but ultimately the good bits — and there were several — didn’t quite outnumber the bad bits (as has been the case in other Keelers I have read).

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Rynox Mystery from last week because in both the crime is a shooting with no sign of the perpetrator.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Has been on your TBR list (but, then, can one read a book that doesn’t fulfil this category?).

11 thoughts on “#402: The Affair of the Bottled Deuce (1958) by Harry Stephen Keeler

  1. At least it’s not only me who has some duff reads this week. I’m surprised you braved another Keeler. One is surely more than enough for anyone… Keeler certainly tests the wit of a blogger’s synopsis writing skills, so I’m impressed how you’ve normalised what I imagine is a wild and far ranging story. Hope you’re next read is a better one.

    • It’s actually pretty focused, apart from his tendency to write dialogue that just veers and wanders and glides about all over the place. Anyway, not one I can recommend anyone trouble themselves with. You certainly were in good company with disappointing reads here…!

    • The solution is the reworking of an old one — perfectly fine, semi-prepared for, but it does also come a bit out of nowhere. had it any points of interest, I would’ve mentioned the fact, worry not!

  2. Am I right in thinking Keeler is a personal favourite of Ramble House and Fender Tucker? Everyone else seems much more lukewarm though. In fact, I can’t recall having read a single positive review of any of Keeler’s works!

    Thanks for the review and for the warning. 😅

    • I think it would take some explaining were Fender Tucker not a great fan of Keeler — why else would you go to the trouble of republishing the man’s entire catalogue including tracking down all the unpublished works? That’s a complicated tax dodge if you’re not a fan… 😀

  3. Good job, JJ. You just killed the only chance I had to sample one of Keeler’s mystery novels. This was the only one I was prepared to try, but you just saved me the trouble. So, thanks, I guess.

    By the way, Keeler strikes me as a bottom of the barrel writer who should only be read when you’re scraping the bottom.

    • I’m aware the man wrote, like, 85 books and I’m willing to trust that I’ve not sampled the best two. And this was unpublished, so maybe not indicative of his best work…

      Still, for the curious,the next one I might try is the wonderful-sounding The Case of the Transparent Nude:

      A woman’s body disappears while taking a steam bath. Only her head and toes, sticking out of the steam cabinet, remain.

      Sure, the misuse of the wax gun here implies that Keeler might not be the strongest on puzzle plotting, but it at least sounds like it could have promise.

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