Andre Marceau is an industrialist with a special hatred of midgets. He ends up strangled in the middle of an otherwise immaculate croquet lawn, a halo of baby-sized footprints around the body. He chokes out some last words.
“The Babe from Hell!”
And dies. Inspector X. Jones of Scotland Yard decides the killer must be a strangler baby with the ability to fly. Perhaps in some kind of experimental aircraft.
Welcome to Harry Stephen Keeler’s 1936 novel X. Jones of Scotland Yard. It’s terrible.
The majority opinion is that Keeler wrote some of the worst mystery thrillers ever. A stubborn minority insist his books are so-bad-they’re-good and occasionally cross into full blown art.
“Thanks a million times for the check-up of the fingerprint in Nebraska,” runs the opening line of X. Jones. “I may now say conclusively that I have the basis for the solution of the Marceau Murder Case sufficiently in my hand that I hope ultimately to hold the full and complete solution itself. The plan proposed in your enthusiastic cable of yesterday morning is wholly and in every respect acceptable to me, and why would it not be?”
Keeler wrote around 70 books and many more stories in his life time, mostly through one-lung publishers and pulp magazines. A lot of his work sold to companies who supplied lending libraries; they appreciated his ability to knock out books at short notice to fill any gaps in the mystery thriller stacks.
Library acquisitions never seem to have read the Keelers they bought. The library patrons who did read them weren’t paying for the experience. So no-one asked for their money back when they discovered Keeler padded out his texts with unrelated short stories (a character starts reading a magazine piece that has no connection to the plot of the novel; Keeler makes that piece – often a story written by Mrs Keeler, a much better writer -the entire next chapter) or that whole books were written in incomprehensible phonetic dialect.
“Yassuh, Ah ca’ied a boxed telumscope to de ‘spress comp’ny fo’ de man whut usta fix ’em in dah.”
The plots run on coincidence and sheer insanity. They never make any sense. Despite this Keeler got his books got translated into Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages. Perhaps Portugal’s publishers thought Criorcan Mulqueeny, Screamo the Clown, and Scientifico Greenlimb were regular all-American names. Maybe the Dutch decided it was normal hard-boiled practice to introduce the murderer for the first time on the last page of a 400-page book.
A Man of Principle
Keeler even displayed touches of a progressive political conscience. In The Case of the Crazy Corpse a coffin pulled out of a lake contains a mismatched dead body: the top half is a nude Chinese girl glued with green gum to the bottom half of an African-American man. Keeler seems to have genuinely thought he was promoting interracial marriage.
If you think you might read X. Jones of Scotland Yard then look away now. In the very last sentence of the book …
“It turns out that Napoleon seduced an ancestor of the victim and passed on a (hypothetical) gene that causes people to die suddenly with symptoms that medical examiners cannot distinguish from strangulation asphyxia. The same gene also causes hallucinations – in the victim’s case, of a demonic baby.” [from William Poundstone’s Harry Keeler Page]
The baby footprints are never explained.
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