Harry Stephen Keeler

Last updated
Harry Stephen Keeler, undated photo HarryKeeler.jpg
Harry Stephen Keeler, undated photo

Harry Stephen Keeler (November 3, 1890 – January 22, 1967) was a prolific but little-known American fiction writer, who developed a cult following for his eccentric mysteries. He also wrote science fiction.



Born in Chicago in 1890, Keeler spent his childhood exclusively in this city, which was so beloved by the author that a large number of his works took place in and around it. In many of his novels, Keeler refers to Chicago as "the London of the west". The expression is explained in the opening of Thieves' Nights (1929):

Here ... were seemingly the same hawkers ... selling the same goods ... here too was the confusion, the babble of tongues of many lands, the restless, shoving throng containing faces and features of a thousand racial castes, and last but not least, here on Halsted and Maxwell streets, Chicago, were the same dirt, flying bits of torn paper, and confusion that graced the junction of Middlesex and Whitechapel High streets far across the globe.

Other locales for Keeler novels include New Orleans and New York. In his later works, Keeler's settings are often more generic settings such as Big River, or a city in which all buildings and streets are either nameless or fictional. Keeler is known to have visited London at least once.

Early adulthood

Keeler's mother was a widow several times over who operated a boarding house popular with theatrical performers. Beginning around age sixteen, Keeler wrote a steady stream of original short stories and serials that were subsequently published in many small pulp magazines of the day.

Circa 1910, when Keeler was about twenty, his mother committed him to an insane asylum for reasons unknown. This initialed Keeler's interest in madness, asylums and the predicament of sane people who had been consigned to such institutions. It also gave him a lifelong violent antipathy towards the psychiatric profession.

Keeler attended the Armour Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. It was at this time that Keeler met his future wife, Hazel Goodwin, whom he would marry in 1919. After graduation, he took a job as an electrician in a steel mill, working by day and writing by night. A notable early work was the 1915 science fiction story "John Jones' Dollar", originally published in a magazine entitled The Black Cat . A reprint would appear in an early (1927) issue of Amazing Stories , the first American science fiction pulp. In the story, a single invested dollar has by the 33rd century grown to a fortune as a result of compound interest. [1]

With E.P. Dutton

Eight of Keeler's earliest works first appeared in pulp fiction magazines like Complete Novel and Top Notch.

His first four novels were originally released in England by Hutchinson, beginning in 1924 with The Voice of the Seven Sparrows. Beginning in 1927, E. P. Dutton took over publication of Keeler's novels in the US. Between 1927 and 1942, Dutton released 37 novels by Keeler. In the United Kingdom, publication of Keeler's novels, sometimes with altered titles and reworked prose, fell to Ward, Lock & Co., who went on to publish 48 novels by Keeler from 1929 to 1953. The Voice of the Seven Sparrows introduced audiences the world over to Keeler's complicated "webwork plot" story lines with wildly improbable in-story coincidences and sometimes sheerly baffling conclusions. Keeler's complex, labyrinthine stories generally alienated his intended reading audience.

Owing to his popularity with Dutton, however, Keeler gained notoriety in the mid-1930s as a purveyor of new and original stories. His popularity peaked when his book Sing Sing Nights was used to "suggest" two different low-budget mystery-adventure films, namely Sing Sing Nights (Monogram Pictures, 1933) and The Mysterious Mr. Wong (Monogram, 1935), the latter of which starred screen legend Bela Lugosi. During this period Keeler was employed as an editor for Ten Story Book, a popular pulp short-story magazine that also included photos of nude and scantily clad young women. [2] Keeler proceeded to fill the spaces between the features with his own peculiar brand of humor and included illustrations drawn by his wife. Here, he also often publicized his own books.

Keeler's relations with the Duttons grew erratic and strained. Keeler's 1941 novel The Peacock Fan appears to take a dig at the Duttons through a pair of faintly disguised characters. In his later career, Keeler's fiction and writing style grew more bizarre and his books longer. He often substituted plot with lengthy dialogue and diatribes between characters. His readership flagged. In 1942, after releasing The Book with the Orange Leaves, Keeler was dropped by Dutton. Ward Lock continued to issue his books in the United Kingdom until 1953.

Later years

The years from 1942 to 1953 were difficult for Keeler. His writing drifted even further beyond the norm and short stories written by his wife (a moderately successful writer herself) were found more and more within his novels. Keeler typically padded the length of his novels with the following device: his protagonist would find a magazine or book, open it at random and discover a story. At this point, Keeler's novel would insert the complete verbatim text of one of his wife's short stories, this being the story his novel's protagonist was reading. At the end of the story, the novel would continue where it left off, several pages nearer to its contractual minimum word count. These stories-within-the-novel typically contained only a few scraps of information that were relevant to the novel in which they appeared.

Keeler's novels were picked up by rental library publisher Phoenix Press, known in the business as the "last stop on the publishing bus". By 1953, British publishers Ward, Lock & Co. printed their final Keeler novel, thus forcing the writer to pen his stories exclusively for an overseas market with stories often translated for publication in Spain and Portugal. [2]

Hazel died in 1960. Keeler remarried in 1963 to his onetime secretary Thelma Rinaldo, which rejuvenated his spirit for writing. Unfortunately, many of the new stories written by Keeler during this time went unpublished, including the relatively infamous The Scarlet Mummy. Keeler died in Chicago four years later, in 1967. He and his wife Hazel are buried in Rosehill Cemetery.

After death

In 2005, The Collins Library (an imprint of McSweeney's) republished Keeler's 1934 classic, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, a project much pursued by writer and publisher Paul Collins. Ramble House has published other works by him

Writing techniques and preoccupations

Most of Keeler's novels feature what Keeler called a "webwork plot". This can be defined as a plot that includes many strands or threads (each thread representing a character or significant object), which intersect in complex causal interactions. A webwork novel typically ends with a surprise revelation which clarifies these interactions. According to Keeler's 1927 series of articles on plot theory, "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction", a webwork plot is typically built around a sequence in which the main character intersects at least four other strands, one after the other, and each of these encounters causes the next one. Keeler never claimed to have invented the webwork plot, but only to be its theorist and practitioner.

Keeler followed a writing procedure of his own; he'd often write a huge manuscript, perhaps twice the length required. He'd then cut it down to size, removing unnecessary subplots and incidents. The removed material (which he called "the Chunk") would sit around until Keeler wrote another manuscript to use it, which might result in yet cutting procedure, and another "Chunk". In his book Thieves' Nights, the hero reads a book which is about two other men telling stories: a framing device within a framing device. In another book, Keeler and his wife turn up as characters in a story.

Keeler kept a large file of newspaper clippings featuring unusual stories and incidents. He is reputed to have pasted these into the rough outlines of his novels, adding notes like "Have this happen to... "

Keeler is known for the MacGuffin-esque insertion of skulls into nearly all his stories. While many plots revolved around a skull or the use of one in a crime or ritual, others featured skulls as a diversion. As an example, a human skull was used as a paperweight on the desk of a police detective.

Several of Keeler's novels make reference to a fictional book entitled The Way Out, which is apparently a tome of ancient Oriental wisdom. The significance of the nonexistent Way Out in Keeler's world is equivalent to the role played by the Necronomicon within H. P. Lovecraft's work.

Influence and parallels

In the late 1930s, British writer John Russell Fearn gave credit to Keeler for inspiring his experiments with webwork plots in his pulp SF stories. [3]

Keeler has influenced later writers, including Neil Gaiman and Futurama producer Ken Keeler (no relation); Ken Keeler says in the DVD commentary for "Time Keeps on Slippin'" that the story "Strange Romance" from the book Y. Cheung, Business Detective was an inspiration for the episode.

Writer Jack Woodford wrote the article Tale Incredible: The True Story of Harry Stephen Keeler's Literary Rise about Keeler.

Keeler's webwork technique anticipates the so-called hysterical realism of later novelists such as Thomas Pynchon. Gabriele Rico in Writing the Natural Way advises aspiring writers to practice a form of webwork, which she calls "clustering", to encourage associational thinking which can be used to create characters and plot lines. [4]

Films that exhibit probably unwitting similarities to Keeler's work include Murder Story (1989), in which Christopher Lee plays a Keeler-like character who keeps a large collection of newspaper clippings as part of his "Willard Hope Technique" for writing novels, which closely resembles Keeler's "webwork novel" technique. R. Kelly's series of music videos Trapped in the Closet shows a number of parallels to Keeler's style. [5]

In 2010, Bavo Dhooge published De Sciencefictionschrijver, a novel about one man's obsession with Keeler, under the pseudonym Harold S. Karstens. [6]

The independent studio United Film House announced a plan to release "The Flyer Hold-Up" in 2015, [7] a film based on Keeler's story "The Flyer Hold Up; or, The Mystery of Train Thirty-Eight", published in the Chicago Ledger in four parts from December 4–25, 1915.

Icelandic novelist Sjón has acknowledged Keeler as an inspiration, [8] as has Spanish writer Raúl Herrero in his novel Rascayú.



Tuddleton Trotter Series

Marceau Series

The Mysterious Mr. I

Vagabond Nights

Hallowe'en Nights

Adventures of a Skull

The Big River Trilogy

Circus Series

The Way Out Series

Steeltown Series

Quiribus Brown Series

Hong Lei Chung Series

Non-series novels and short fiction

See also

Related Research Articles

Detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction and mystery fiction in which an investigator or a detective—either professional, amateur or retired—investigates a crime, often murder. The detective genre began around the same time as speculative fiction and other genre fiction in the mid-nineteenth century and has remained extremely popular, particularly in novels. Some of the most famous heroes of detective fiction include C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot. Juvenile stories featuring The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Boxcar Children have also remained in print for several decades.

Pulp magazine Cheap fiction magazines made from 1896 to the 1950s

Pulp magazines were inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the late 1950s. The term "pulp" derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. In contrast, magazines printed on higher-quality paper were called "glossies" or "slicks". The typical pulp magazine had 128 pages; it was 7 inches (18 cm) wide by 10 inches (25 cm) high, and 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) thick, with ragged, untrimmed edges.

Raymond Chandler American novelist and screenwriter

Raymond Thornton Chandler was an American-British novelist and screenwriter. In 1932, at the age of forty-four, Chandler became a detective fiction writer after losing his job as an oil company executive during the Great Depression. His first short story, "Blackmailers Don't Shoot", was published in 1933 in Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. In addition to his short stories, Chandler published seven novels during his lifetime. All but Playback have been made into motion pictures, some more than once. In the year before his death, he was elected president of the Mystery Writers of America.

A pen name, also called a nom de plume or a literary double, is a pseudonym adopted by an author and printed on the title page or by-line of their works in place of their real name.

Jack Vance American mystery and speculative fiction writer

John Holbrook "Jack" Vance was an American mystery, fantasy, and science fiction writer. Though most of his work has been published under the name Jack Vance, he also wrote several mystery novels under different pen names.

Crime fiction Genre of fiction focusing on crime

Crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery, mystery novel, and police novel are terms used to describe narratives that centre on criminal acts and especially on the investigation, either by an amateur or a professional detective, of a serious crime, generally a murder. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has multiple sub-genres, including detective fiction, courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction, and legal thrillers. Most crime drama focuses on crime investigation and does not feature the court room. Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly ubiquitous to the genre.

John Dickson Carr American mystery novelist and playwright

John Dickson Carr was an American author of detective stories, who also published using the pseudonyms Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn.

The "locked-room" or "impossible crime" mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.

Mystery fiction Genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved

Mystery is a fiction genre where the nature of an event, usually a murder or other crime, remains mysterious until the end of the story. Often within a closed circle of suspects, each suspect is usually provided with a credible motive and a reasonable opportunity for committing the crime. The central character is often a detective, who eventually solves the mystery by logical deduction from facts presented to the reader. Some mystery books are non-fiction. Mystery fiction can be detective stories in which the emphasis is on the puzzle or suspense element and its logical solution such as a whodunit. Mystery fiction can be contrasted with hardboiled detective stories, which focus on action and gritty realism.

Ron Goulart

Ron Goulart is an American popular culture historian and mystery, fantasy and science fiction author.

Anthony Boucher American author

William Anthony Parker White known by his pen-name Anthony Boucher, was an American author, critic, and editor, who wrote several classic mystery novels, short stories, science fiction, and radio dramas. Between 1942 and 1947 he acted as reviewer of mostly mystery fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to "Anthony Boucher", White also employed the pseudonym "H. H. Holmes", which was the pseudonym of a late-19th-century American serial killer; Boucher would also write light verse and sign it "Herman W. Mudgett".

Argosy, later titled The Argosy, Argosy All-Story Weekly and The New Golden Argosy, was an American pulp magazine from 1882 through 1978, published by Frank Munsey until its sale to Popular Publications in 1942. It is the first American pulp magazine. The magazine began as a children's weekly story–paper entitled The Golden Argosy. In the era before the Second World War, Argosy was regarded as one of the "Big Four" pulp magazines, - the most prestigious publications in the pulp market, that many pulp magazine writers aspired to publish in. John Clute, discussing the American pulp magazines in the first two decades of the twentieth century, has described The Argosy and its companion The All-Story as "the most important pulps of their era."

Crime is a typically 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century genre, dominated by British and American writers. This article explores its historical development as a genre.

Hugh B. Cave

Hugh Barnett Cave was an American writer of various genres, perhaps best remembered for his works of horror, weird menace and science fiction. Cave was one of the most prolific contributors to pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s, selling an estimated 800 stories not only in the aforementioned genres but also in western, fantasy, adventure, crime, romance and non-fiction. He used a variety of pen names, notably Justin Case under which name he created the antihero The Eel. A war correspondent during World War II, Cave afterwards settled in Jamaica where he owned and managed a coffee plantation and continued his writing career, now specializing in novels as well as fiction and non-fiction sales to mainstream magazines.

Walter Brown Gibson was an American author and professional magician, best known for his work on the pulp fiction character The Shadow. Gibson, under the pen-name Maxwell Grant, wrote "more than 300 novel-length" Shadow stories, writing up to "10,000 words a day" to satisfy public demand during the character's golden age in the 1930s and 1940s. He authored several novels in the Biff Brewster juvenile series of the 1960s. He was married to Litzka R. Gibson, also a writer, and the couple lived in New York state.

Lionel Fanthorpe

Robert Lionel Fanthorpe, FCollP, FRSA, FCMI is a retired British priest and entertainer. Fanthorpe also worked as a dental technician, journalist, teacher, television presenter, author and lecturer. Born in Dereham in Norfolk, he lives in Cardiff in South Wales, where he served as Director of Media Studies and tutor/lecturer in Religious Studies.

David Goodis

David Loeb Goodis was an American writer of crime fiction noted for his output of short stories and novels in the noir fiction genre. Born in Philadelphia, Goodis alternately resided there and in New York City and Hollywood during his professional years. According to critic Dennis Drabelle, "Despite his [university] education, a combination of ethnicity (Jewish) and temperament allowed him to empathize with outsiders: the working poor, the unjustly accused, fugitives, criminals."

Edgar Pangborn was an American writer of mystery, historical, and science fiction.

Jack Woodford (1894–1971) was an American novelist and non-fiction writer, author of successful pulp novels and non-fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote unique books on writing and getting published. Most famously, Woodford authored Trial and Error which caused something of a scandal at the time of publication because of its no-holds-barred insights into the publishing industry.

Kenneth Martin Edwards is a British crime novelist, whose work has won awards in the UK and the United States. As a crime fiction critic and historian, and also in his career as a solicitor, he has written non-fiction books and many articles. He is the current President of the Detection Club and in 2020 was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in British crime writing, in recognition of the ‘sustained excellence’ of his work in the genre.


  1. "John Jones' Dollar" was first published in The Black Cat . E. F. Bleiler,Science-Fiction: The Gernsback YearsThe Kent State University Press, ISBN   0-87338-604-3 (p.209)
  2. 1 2 Francis M. Nevins, Jr., "Keeler, Harry Stephen", in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly. St. James Press, 1985. ISBN   0-312-82418-1 (pp. 521–22)
  3. Richard Polt, "John Russell Fearn, Webworker Extraordinayre," Keeler News no. 38, June 2002.
  4. Gabrielle Rico, Writing the Natural Way (Tarcher, 2000).
  5. William Poundstone, "Trapped in the Closet: The Webwork Opera," Keeler News no. 65, December 2007.
  6. Publisher's information Archived March 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  7. United Film House website
  8. Carol Álvarez, "Keeler, el novelista 'noir' más excéntrico," El Mundo, 17 March 2019