Mysteries Without Borders
by Brian DeLeeuw
In his introduction to the McSweeney’s reissue of Henry Stephen Keeler’s 1934 novel The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, Paul Collins writes that “Keeler takes the implicit absurdity of the mystery and makes it explicit.” Collins points out that the solution to a mystery novel’s crimes is not, as in real life, the “simplest answer,” but is in fact often the most unlikely and preposterous of all available options.
Mystery writers are constrained only by the task of maintaining the reader’s attention and, do a lesser degree, his credulity. Keeler forgoes the latter entirely in the midst of his manic attention to the former.
The plotting and solution have to make sense only within the hermetic world of the novel, the rules of which are entirely set by the author. When a mystery writer constructs his plot, there are many junctions at which he may make one choice or another, and it is primarily the rules of his fictional world that help him make those choices.
But what happens when this fictional world apparently has no rules whatsoever?
Buy The Riddle of the Traveling Skull here.
What happens when improbable coincidences, unexplained motives, and bizarre red herrings are employed at every turn?
The plot choices in many ways become almost entirely random. Nothing is too unbelievable, nothing so far-fetched that a deus ex machina or twelve can’t fix it. This is the condition of Keeler’s world, and if there is any doubt, he more or less admits it at the end of Chapter XV.
Above: a diagram of the plot of one of his books, or “structural synopsis,” as he calls it
A trip to Columbia to look at these babies.
Ed Park on Henry Stephen Keeler.
Here, our caddish hero Clay Calthorpe ponders the identity of the mysterious poetess Abigail Sprigge:
But, as a matter of fact, I was destined to confront the writer of these verses in very much less than ten years. In less than ten hours, to be exact!
And to find that –
Abigail Sprigge was Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel?
No! Not at all. Though I could not have been more surprised had such been the case!
It is hard not to think that Keeler seriously considered that Abigail Sprigge might indeed turn out to be Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel. It is, as Clay puts it, no more surprising than the fact that Abigail Sprigge is actually – spoiler alert! – John Barr.
Keeler seems to have been so excited by the limitless possibilities his novels offered him that he couldn’t resist teasing us (and himself) with an alternative solution to the mystery of Abigail Sprigge’s identity, one just as insane and unfounded as the final “truth” of the matter.
This ecstatic indecision even infects the book’s prose. Keeler frequently gives two metaphors where only one is needed; he allows Clay to spin ludicrous hypotheses that turn out to be entirely incorrect; he riddles his characters’ conversations with misunderstandings and non sequiturs. It is as if he had the material and ideas for five different novels but couldn’t resist attempting to pack it all into one.
Bob Polito, Alex Ross and David Remnick.
Readers often indulge in the delusion that the twists and turns of a novel are in some way inevitable – that things could only turn out the way in which they are ultimately related on the page. This is of course wrong, but more traditionally skillful writers can often make it seem to be so.
Instead, Keeler lays bare the awkward, indecisive skeleton hiding underneath every novel’s sleek skin, and makes us rediscover the giddy joy of placing potential and possibility above polish and logic.
Brian DeLeeuw writes regularly on travel, fashion, and food for CITY magazine (www.city-magazine.com), and has also recently been published in Tin House and the New York Press. A regular contributor to This Recording, he is at work on a novel.
Brian on Donald Barthelme.
“My List” — The Killers (mp3)
“He Came To Meet Me” — Hem (mp3)
“The Golden Day Is Dying” — Hem (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Brian took a trip to Rockaway Beach.
I tried to recommend Big Love to my mom.
Molly felt manatee catz.