THE FIVE SILVER BUDDHAS (1935) by Harry Stephen Keeler
reviewed by Barry Ergang
I knew Harry Stephen Keeler by name only until I read about his eccentricities in Bill Pronzini's hilarious Gun in Cheek a number of years ago. When I came upon a copy of The Five Silver Buddhas, also several years back, in a used-book store, I bought it but didn't get around to reading it until very recently.
The 281-page novel chiefly concerns one between-jobs newspaper reporter named Penn Harding who, on his way to propose marriage to Neva Edgecomb, daughter of wealthy Chicago steel magnate Bradley Edgecomb, stops in at an auction and purchases a pocket-sized silver image of the Buddha—one of five—that is supposed to be a how-sei-gei, a good luck charm. What makes the item unique is that the Buddha has his hands over his eyes. After leaving the auction, Harding stops at the laundry owned and operated by Fook Wong, who tells him the image—because it's of a "blinded" Buddha—is actually a mo-sei-gei, a bad luck charm.
Before the reader learns what kind of bad luck befalls Harding, Keeler treats him to the fates of the possessors of the other four images. These narratives consume quite a few chapters, especially the one concerning burglar Tim Waldo, but except as demonstrations of bad luck, they are completely irrelevant to the main plot, which in itself is little more than a short story expatiated upon via Keeler's astoundingly turgid, digressive prose style.
But back to Penn Harding. He visits the Edgecomb mansion, apprehensive about whether Neva will accept his proposal, and is surprised to see uniformed policemen posted at the front and rear of the house. Admitted by Jelkins, an English butler of cold demeanor, Harding joins Neva in her father's study. The Japanese houseman, Tano, brings them glasses of grape juice and chocolate walnuts, exchanges some friendly words with Harding, and departs. Harding proposes to Neva, worried she'll reject him because he doesn't want to accept her father's offer to work in the steel business, and is happily surprised when she agrees to marry him.
Bradley Edgecomb is out of the house on a business appointment when Harding arrives, but returns not long afterward. In the interim, Neva explains that her father's appointment is with fatally ill metallurgist Peter Cron, who has developed a formula for making steel virtually impregnable. "Steelcron," as the formula is known, will enable Edgecomb to manufacture steel plates for American battleships, thus making his company superior to his bigger competitors and making him that much wealthier.
On the way back to the rooming house where he lives, Harding is accosted by thugs. Still later, someone invades his room in the middle of the night. Subsequently, Harding is hauled in by the police, accused of stealing the Steelcron formula from the safe in Edgecomb's study, since he was the only person, other than Edgecomb himself, the police know for a certainty came and went that night. A piece of damning evidence pointing to him has been found in the safe.
The remainder of the story concerns Harding's efforts to prove himself innocent—as additional obstacles confront him—and uncover the identity of the culprit who's framed him. As new events unfold and more information comes to light, the story gets delightfully sillier.
As I mentioned earlier, the novel is 281 pages long. Yet on page 147 the reader sees
a "challenge to the reader" that wouldn't exactly have Ellery Queen eating his heart out since neither Harding nor anyone else solves the mystery until quite late in the second half of the book. I couldn't tell you if it's fairly-clued. This is one of those stories you don't try to figure out; you just coast along with it.
As William Poundstone points out at his website, to read Keeler is to experience the literary equivalent of watching a film by Edward D. Wood, Jr—who, by the way, wrote a few pulp novels himself. Which is to say, Keeler is so bad he's good.
The Five Silver Buddhas could serve as a primer on how not to write fiction, particularly of the mystery/suspense variety. For instance, Keeler has the habit of letting one character relate in dialogue information to another which the other already has—this for the benefit of the reader. Since Keeler uses the omniscient viewpoint much of the time, this amateurish method is unnecessary.
He throws in at least three "had-he-but-knowns."
Keeler's idiosyncratic prose is a commingling of what he probably thought of as "literary" with the slang of the day. He's overly fond of incomplete and complete sentences that wander herky-jerkily all over the map before getting to their predicates. He loves the exclamation mark, no doubt imagining it heightens impact on the reader.
Here's a passage from Chapter Three, which details the mo-sei-gei of Ivan Kossakoff, a serial strangler in possession of one of the Buddhas, who's stalking his next victim:
"She certainly ought to be along soon. For her life, so he'd found, was as regular a thing as a train time-table. It was right here, in fact, that he had first seen her, a number of evenings before, as she strode briskly home after her dinner. Which dinner, he'd found, was invariably eaten in the little basement French tea-room a half block or so up the street. An expensive 'dump,' too. A 'buck' for a 'table de hoat'—with wine! She was a tall dark girl—28 years, perhaps, in age—maybe more. Either she was disregardful of Chicago hold-up men—or else, as was most probably the case, she knew she was perfectly safe on a well-lighted street at 8 o'clock in the evening. For the diamond that glistened in each of her ear-lobes was the real thing—and Ivan prided himself that he knew scintillations—when he saw scintillation! For hadn't Aunt Sonya Vointskaya, when he'd been a boy there on Goose Island, had at least half a dozen real diamonds—and given them all to the Russian Church, too, when she died, the damned old bitch? No, these earrings were, as Ivan put it, the 'McCoy'—showing that he knew the argot of his native-born criminal brothers as well as he knew jewelry. The ear-drops were, in fact, as 'good stuff' as the dinner ring—the 'hoop,' as Ivan called it—that always reposed on the middle finger of this girl's ungloved right hand. To be sure, she had Ivan more or less puzzled. But because the big first-floor rear room to which she always repaired after eating her dinner—and immediately went to bed in, and alone, moreover!—was in a theatrical rooming house just a few blocks further south on Washington Square, Ivan guessed that she might be a 'kicker'—a 'burleycue gal,' that is—or maybe a 'chorine'—now at leisure—but one whose 'daddy,' during some previous 'affair'—had 'iced her' generously. And even 'padded her purse' as well. Though she might be a principal, at that. An actress. A 'warbler' maybe...."
The quirky Keeler style sorely dilutes his efforts to generate either convincing characterizations or suspense.
The book teems with racial and ethnic stereotypes, and occasional slurs. Keeler evidently never learned that extended passages of dialect pull readers out of the story as they try to decipher what foreign-born characters are saying. Thus we have the German rooming-house owner Mrs. Schempelwitz (whose scene goes on for pages!): "'Oh—vun derrible ding vass happen' on Soud Stade Sdreed tonide. About vun block down. Unt agross der sdreed from diss site. A man vot vas [sic] run a Shinese oction vass killed deat—by masked holduppers.'" (Why there's an apostrophe after "happen" is beyond me, unless it's a typo, of which the book contains plenty.)
"'Me no know a single tling,' declared Fook Wong, his lips shut so firmly that they made virtually a line as straight as the one between Euclid's famous two points. 'Know not'ing. Nev' see 'im befo'.' He shrugged his shoulders with magnificent insouciance. 'Oh—mabbe goo' luck, Mista Haldling. Mabbe—how-sei-gei. Mebbe [sic] blad. Gloddamn blad. Mo-sei-gei. Who know? Not me.'"
Here's Tano, the Japanese houseman: "'The eegn'rant Chinese,' he went on, 'to soch a fine race like we Japs—for we consider the Chinese mongrel dogs, fit to do but as you say your friend do—iron shirts—yes they believe impleecitly that images of Buddha breeng luck. Now me, I am American-born Jap—an' am myself beyon' soch superstitious state....'"
Hilda, the Swedish maid: "'I guess he dittent go by Elyin....He say you sen' him from County Yail Beelding to get a paper from your room.'"
The French Mr. Boissevain: "'Zis ees eet, Shief! Wan of zee five, annyway. Our nombaire for eet—one hondard and zirty-five—eez on zee bottom. Only so leetle you 'ave to 'ave beeg glass like zees wan of mine for to see. Zee ozzer four, zey was nombaired in same way, but from wan hondard and zirty-seex to wan hondard an' zirty-nine eenclusive.'"
Keeler's publisher could have used a good copy editor. Mispunctuations and spelling errors abound.
It's unlikely that modern readers could devour one Keeler title after another unless they're masochists. If The Five Silver Buddhas exemplifies his work—and from what I've heard, it's tame in comparison with later books—his books have to be regarded as the same kind of once-in-a-great-while "guilty pleasures" as Ed Wood's movies.
For additional information and examples of Keeler's work, check out the Harry Stephen Keeler Society.
As always, for more on this novel or The Golden Age of Detection surf to http://tinyurl.com/yu8p2f
Barry Ergang © 2007
Currently the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007 Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages.