As you might gather from the excerpt above, Harry Stephen Keeler's The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (1934) pretty much has it all--jammed in every which way. This is one of the craziest concoctions I've ever read. Keeler seems to have no regard for the standard storytelling method and definitely doesn't subscribe to any of the "rules of detection fiction" that were bumping around in the Golden Age. He'll bring in Chinamen, have all sorts of coincidences, make you suspect the butler (valet)...and according to rumor even wrote a book where he introduced the murderer on the very last page. The only thing that's missing is the secret passage.
And yet...his style is compelling. It attracts the attention and the curiosity much the way those cliff-hanger serials in the movies (Perils of Pauline, anyone?) kept folks on the edge of the seat. Every chapter ends in such a way to leave the reader breathless and flipping the page as quickly as possible to see what new and unlikely twist Keeler is going to spring on his unsuspecting hero, Clay Calthorpe.
Poor Clay. All he wants is to return from his travels (in search of the rights to the rare Julu berry for use by his boss, Roger Pelton, in his wondrous wholesale candies), hand over the signed Julu berry papers, hide from Suing Sophie (who may try to sue him for breach of promise) and get down to the business of making the boss's daughter his wife. He hops off his train and catches a street car to his boarding house in Chicago, Illinois. At some point in the journey, his bag gets mixed with that of a harmless-looking clerical fellow and when he reaches his room and opens "his" bag he finds not his very own purple pajamas (!) but a polished, grinning skull. The skull has a silver name plate affixed to it, a bullet inside it and, in the wads of paper that keep the bullet from rattling around, he finds bits of carbon paper with snatches of phrases on them.
At first this oddity seems no more than the beginning of a curious adventure. But then he's lured to a deserted house (supposedly to exchange bags with the clerical gentleman), bashed over the head and robbed of the bag containing the skull. He later shares his adventures with his friend John Barr (inventor the famous Barr Bag--the kind he had) and his fiancee's family. As soon as Roger Pelton hears the story, he faints dead away. The next thing Clay knows he's no longer scheduled to marry the fair Doris Pelton--her father won't allow it. As far as Clay can tell it's all because of that dratted skull and so he determines to find the bag and get to the bottom of the skull story if it's the last thing he does.
There are so many twists and turns and surprises to this narrative that it would be difficult to give any more of a synopsis. Just know that in addition to those gems described in the quotation above, we also have a love triangle that inspires a murderous attack, a large sum of money embezzled from a bank, a ventriloquist's dummy, a pilfered safe, a train wreck, and the fictional country of San Do Mar, where no one can be extradited for a crime--any crime from stealing $100 from the till to cold-blooded murder.
I have to confess, when I got to the end of the story and All Was Revealed--I still couldn't tell you what really happened. I mean...I know what Keeler says happened. But the way he tells us--I don't know if I'm supposed to believe him. But you know what? I don't care. It was a wild and wacky ride and so much fun that it doesn't matter. This isn't necessarily the kind of mystery I'd want as a steady diet, but for an occasional flight of fancy it works very well. ★★★
With a "Skull" in the title, this fulfills the "Something Spooky" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card. The word "Traveling" is also the second clue in the Super Book Password Challenge. And, finally,
this counts as a second entry for Rich's Crimes of the Century feature for June. This month is focused on crime fiction from 1934. This is-the book that really made me ask for 1934.