The Riddle of the Travelling Skull (1934) by Harry Stephen Keeler: A Mind Boggling Novel

Source: Review Copy (Ramble House)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Skull

The Riddle of the Travelling Skull

If you are tired of reading the same old detective novel then The Riddle of the Travelling Skull (1934) by Harry Stephen Keeler will assuredly give you some different. A sentence which struck me in the introduction by Richard Polt was, ‘There is a clash of ingredients here that most readers will either love or hate…’ and early on in the story this is neatly summed by the narrator, Clay Calthorpe who says:

‘I knew quite nothing… concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney- talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag” which was as like my own bag… nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons…’

This also demonstrates a key element of Keeler’s writing style which is ‘webwork novels,’ novels whose plots feature a high number of bizarre people, items and events, which are all woven together by the end of the story. Such a feature is also foreshadowed in the setting of the novel, ‘Chicago, that strange London of the West where most anything can happen.’

The novel begins with Clay returning from the Philippines, having completed the business deals needed for the confectionary company he works for and his primary worry is avoiding Suing Sophie, who he meet on the boat back. She is otherwise known as Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel and is a missionary who has a tendency to imagine men have proposed to her, who she then sues for breach of promise. Yet Clay is soon presented with a new worry when he returns home finding he has not only picked up the wrong bag from the tram, but this bag has a skull in it which has a bullet inside it, packed in with pieces of paper with mysterious phrases on. The bag belongs to a Reverend Duncan Craig who currently possesses Clay’s bag and the latter is curious to know why such a person has a bag with a skull in it. Consequently he agrees to bring the bag to the Reverend late at night and it is no surprise to the reader when a Chinese man who has already been following Clay and has a ‘livid scar traversing one of his cheeks from his ear to the corner of his mouth,’ snatches the bag from him. When Clay comes to he realises the address he was sent to was an empty house and that there is no such person as Reverend Duncan Craig.

In itself this is a bizarre experience and it seems as though events will go no further beyond providing an unusual anecdote for Clay who goes on to tell his fiancée and her father. However, this begins to change when Roger Pelton, the aforementioned father in law, faints at the mention of the skull. Does Roger have something to hide or is he just really squeamish? The latter theory goes out of the window next morning when Clay’s fiancée tells him that her father says the marriage cannot go ahead and that it is ‘doomed.’ Desperate not to lose the woman he loves, Clay decides to delve into the mystery of the skull, tracking down various pieces of the puzzle through the most unlikely of people sometimes, such as his friend John Barr, a poetess called Abigail and a brain surgeon called Dr Max Prior. In doing so he forces out a secret one character hoped never would be revealed…

The plot written like that sounds reasonably straight forward, even if it is a little odd and at points in the story when Clay is following up the potential identity of the skull this idea seems to be borne out. However, this suggestion is exploded monumentally in the final third of the novel where identity is slippery and elusive, with Clay repeatedly failing to correctly identify who people really are. In a way Clay can be identified himself as the fallible amateur sleuth, who really is in over his head. As the story gets closer to the end the prospective solution although mind boggling in parts is manageable and interesting, yet in the final showdown which closes the novel, this solution is significantly overthrown and does rather mess with your head, leaving you wondering what crime has exactly taken place and what is the true version of events, as there are multiple ones. And yes the final sentence will make you audibly go “arghhhh!!!” On reflection though I think Keeler is perhaps poking fun at or challenging the boundaries of credibility, notions of conclusive endings and maybe also reader tendencies to accept the ridiculous and the fantastical so long as it wraps up all the various aspects of the plot. This is arguably highlighted when a character says, ‘I really wanted to show you how easy it is to – to construct dramatic fiction plot – what racket these damned fictioneers have! – so that never again will you pay $2.00 for a mystery novel.’

Overall Thoughts

This is a novel which does live up to the expectations voiced in the introduction for its’ ability to interweave a number of highly fantastical events, characters and objects. Nevertheless it is also a novel which is hard to come to terms with as it is difficult to pin down or definitively categorise and instead I would regard the reading of it as a unique experience. I think the pacing of the book needed working on as it often felt quite slow as Keeler had to introduce a number of unusual elements and he does include a significant amount of excelsior or padding in his characters’ conversations which is not needed. The final third of the book though does pick up in pace a lot and I was eager to find out what happens next until I got to the final sentence which throws up so many questions and since I am a reader which on the whole prefers conclusive endings I felt cheated. Initially I had to read this novel much more slowly and with greater attention as the narrative style doesn’t flow easily at times due to some original sentence structures and interesting grammar usage. Also Keeler’s desire to include seemingly authentic accents and dialects means one or two minor characters are difficult to comprehend. However, I think it is a narrative style which you become accustomed to as you read it and you easily start ignoring the erroneous full stops. An unusual stereotype I came across was when characters thought it odd that a Chinese person could quote the Bible to any great degree and despite the introduction saying that in some novels Keeler tackles the issue of racism, this is not one of them and there are odd traces of it present in the book. In conclusion I return to the beginning of my post and state like Polt that you will either love or hate this book, but it is such a bizarre experience at points it is still something you need to try.


Overall premise and intermesh-ness of plot: 4.25/5

Narrative style and Pacing: 3.5/5

Ending: 3/5


    • Read your review and I was relieved I was not the only one stumped at the end of the book as to what happened. Also found it interesting that you mentioned he wrote a book where the murderer is introduced on the last page- not sure I could have coped reading such a book. He is definitely a writer who did things his own way.


  1. ‘Chicago, that strange London of the West where most anything can happen.’
    The similarity between Chicago and London is elaborated in the first para of the book Thieves’ Nights. I quote:
    “The one dirty window of the barren little room on the corner of Halsted and Maxwell streets, Chicago, looked out on a scene that, to Ward Sharlow, its only occupant, resembled nothing so much as that noisy maelstrom in London known as Petticoat Lane. Here, too, although it was evening and the lights of the city were on, were seemingly the same hawkers, with only their Cockney dialect missing, but selling the same goods—everything from tinny alarm clocks to shoddy clothing—from the same pushcarts; 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.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I bought The Shark-Skin Book from Ramble House a little while ago as Fender Tucker is such a Keeler fan that I figured he must be worth trying at least once. Not got round to it yet, but pretty much everything you say here reinforces my impression of his writing. I could do with something a little off-the-wall, so might get to it quite soon…


    • I would be interested to see what you make of him, as I think you’ll really get into the battiness or you will be end up furious at what Keeler does at the end. Also you say ‘a little off the wall,’ I think it might be more accurate if you replace the word little with very, incredibly or enormously or possibly use all three…


  3. I have since read the book and here is the explanation:


    Philip Walmsley, Milo Payne, Abigail Sprigge and John Brar are one and the same person ! When he waits in the room of Clay Calthorpe the night Clay arrived home, he sees the bag and recognises it as the bag he gave to Peter Walmsley in Palmer House. He opens the bag, takes out the skull and puts in a pair of shoes. This bag is later stolen by Ichabod Chang and buried but it contains only shoes !
    Also, the story he tells Calthorpe regarding Otto is a pack of lies. I quote from the last chapter:
    “Oh—Otto?” he said, in a troubled tone of voice. “Well now—um—er—about poor Otto—remember, please, that I only asked you if you’d be sur-
    prised if—if there was an Otto. And—and if he did thus and so. I didn’t at any
    time, if you’ll go back over all my words, say that there was such a person. In
    fact,” he added triumphantly, “you—you supplied me yourself just a few minutes back—with the name—Kratzenschneiderwümpel. To tell you the truth,
    —I really wanted to show you how easy it is to—to construct dramatic fiction
    plot—what a racket these damned fictioneers have!—so that never again will
    you pay $2.00 for a mystery novel.”

    Liked by 1 person

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