The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler

SkulloftheWaltzingFor want of a better phrase, this stuff is bananas.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown is a hard book to summarize because its plot takes a while to emerge and to point out its central theme will spoil several moments along the way. In short, the description I am about to offer really only scratches the surface of what this novel is about but it is probably the best I can do.

George Stannard, a shirt salesman, is returning from a business trip to Hawaii via the city of Chicago to answer a summons from his estranged uncle. He had only seen the said uncle once in his life as a five-year old as a falling out between uncle and father resulted in those ties being severed. His father, we learn, died recently and the uncle is looking to get George to do something for him. Precisely what that is will take most of the novel to uncover.

Much of The Skull of the Waltzing Clown unfolds in the form of a lengthy conversation between the two men in the course of a few hours. Once that conversation begins there are no third parties to distract or get in the way and the pair start to trade stories, asides and the occasional barb or pointed comment.

This lends the book something of a rambling and seemingly unfocused aspect that may be off-putting to some. If the reader hasn’t read a summary of the story they are likely to spend much of the novel wondering how these elements will connect and what the point of it all is. Then, in the ending, you should see how these apparent digressions still have a purpose and how there was unity of theme and concept all along.

Now, given that this is a mystery fiction blog, I do have to say that the mystery element here is similarly unfocused. There is no crime to investigate or murder to look into in spite of a strange challenge to the reader issued just before the halfway mark. Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the conversations and work out what the point of the story is and how these ideas will fit together. I found this to be quite a fascinating process and loved the different elements that Keeler is able to explore such as the collection of old safes that the elder Stannard has bought and keeps in his basement or the strange drug Pau-Ho which knocks people out for over a month before acting as a truth serum for several days.

Those looking for a more conventional mystery may appreciate the short impossible crime story The Verdict which features in the narrative around two third of the way through. This comes about when George is asked to select a story to print in his Uncle’s pulp magazine off the slush pile and while this feels quite random and contrived at the time, I did appreciate the way that Keeler makes it relevant later in the text.

As an impossible crime story it is quite solid and entertaining in its own right. A man is found dead in a locked apartment, the only exit to which is a window with a ten story drop. The weapon, a Chinese knife, only has one set of fingerprints on – those of the person who packed the knife up to be shipped to the victim. The explanation of how it is done is quite wacky and not particularly convincing but I enjoyed reading the story anyway and felt it fit well with the overall tone of the whole novel.

While I did enjoy the way this story was plotted and, in particular, its unorthodox structure there were some elements, there were some aspects of the novel that were less successful or pleasing. The most prominent of these issues for me was the abundance of racist sentiments not only from a character who we are supposed to dislike for holding those views but also from George who is supposed to be a more sympathetic figure. Keeler also has him mimic Chinese dialect patterns for ‘humorous’ effect. These instances jarred with me, particularly in the earliest chapters of the novel where they feature most often.

A lesser frustration for me was the odd way that everyone seems to have in this story of writing letters as though they were being spoken out loud as they were being composed. There are little stumbles and errors that are left in for the reader and while that may make sense with some of the characters, in other cases the informality seems quite out-of-place. It’s a small thing but it did pull me out of things a bit at times.

My final issue with the novel is that there is an encounter which the book seems to trail and set up for the reader to anticipate that never happens. This seems odd because all of the other loose ends are tied up very efficiently and it is admittedly a very minor thing but I was waiting for some sort of payoff that never came.

Though the nature of this novel and some of the issues I had with the novel keep me from writing a broad recommendation, I did find this a fascinating and compelling read and admired how tightly it was constructed. Keeler’s story, characters and themes are powerful and while I had no idea where this was all headed until the last handful of pages, I enjoyed the experience of finding out how it was all connected. I am certainly curious to try some of his other work should any cross my path.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Out of Your Comfort Zone (Why)