Harry Stephen Keeler: The Shark-skin Book

shark-skin_booThey’ve got Ogden Farlow dead to rights! Under the third degree he admitted that the body, with a bullet from his gun in its skull, is lying buried in his basement. It’s the most open-and-shut case the DA has ever seen! So begins the most incredible mystery ever written by Harry Stephen Keeler. It ends with an awe-inspiring climax that has never been rivaled in the annals of American literature. This is a novel that every anarchist and would-be criminal must read! It could save you from a brutal beating by the police, not to mention an appointment with 2,200 volts!

With a blurb like that, and a loan from JJ at The Invisible Event, I set off into the hardboiled world of America’s ‘most forgotten author’ (so forgotten that I had actually assumed he was made up).

Ogden Farlow is being given the third degree by a collection of racially stereotyped cops who are determined to hang a murder around his innocent neck. Driven mad by thirst, hunger, fatigue, and the need for a smoke, Ogden eventually gives them what they want – hoping that his spurious story will buy him some time to recover. But oops, every fact he invented checks out as correct, up to and included the location of the body, meaning he’s bound for the electric chair.

I kind of expected that Farlow would proceed to prove his innocence on the approved manner, but all of a sudden we’re in a completely different story. A British-born American Indian has travelled from the Michigan countryside to the Chicago den of crime-boss Mullarkey on some unlikely personal business. Their conversation spans several chapters as we learn that Mullarkey’s brother Slick holds the key to the future happiness of Joe Long Buffalo and his fiancée. Unfortunately Slick is on the lam. Fortunately, Joe once owned a book of Chinese proverbs – bound in shark-skin – named The Way Out, and has absorbed its wisdom. It gives him the idea he needs to outwit Mullarkey and find Slick.

No sooner has this been resolved than we find ourselves – just for a couple of chapters – with a doctor being held up by gangsters in a Nebraska City apartment. Again, the wisdom of the shark-skin book provides the inspiration for an escape.

Then back to Ogden Farlow. His crooked lawyer is trying to use his trial to bring down a political rival and as a result has assembled only paper-thin evidence. Ogden seems doomed, but the shark-skin book has one more surprise to give…

When I say you have to lean in to follow Keeler’s prose, that’s an understatement. Here’s a paragraph chosen at random.

D’ya think we’re all dimwits in this racket? D’ya think we don’t know nothin’ about you and your brother Prendergast Adair inheritin’ 200 grand from your grandfather – wit’ him sole adminystrator – and trustee wit’ full powers to spend your half in any goddamn way he woes – so long’s it’s f’r your benefit? W’en you write a certain cute little note aut’orizin’ him to use yours f’r ransom – he’ll do it! Specially wit’ you a bachylor, and there bein’ no wife in the picture tho put a crimp on the payoff because it’s eatin’ her dower rights in your dough.

195 pages of this – phew! Some books should not be read on a cross-country train journey beginning at 6.52AM. Still, it’s certainly a memorable book – and unique in my experience. The solution to the mystery of how Farlow’s confession could be true is utterly barmy but makes a peculiar kind of sense. I think.


Harry Stephen Keeler
The Shark-skin Book
Source: JJ at the Invisible Event
First published 1940 by Dutton
This edition by Ramble House, 2009
195 pages
ISBN 9781605433967

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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7 Responses to Harry Stephen Keeler: The Shark-skin Book

  1. You are not alone in your experience of Keeler. He definitely leaves you with a sore head. I’m impressed with your synopsis of the story as I know from experience how hard it is to summarise one of his works, so great are the number of plot strands.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bev Hankins says:

    Keeler is definitely a one-of-a kind. I’ve read his Riddle of the Traveling Skull and got another (The Amazing Web) waiting in the wings. I decided on the first go round that it was a wacky ride, but not unpleasant and good for an occasional flight of fancy (definitely not an author I’d want to read too much of in row, though).

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  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    The craziest book of Harry Keeler is X.Jones Of Scotland Yard, an impossible crime story. It has the craziest solution that I have ever read. The solution is given here http://home.williampoundstone.net/Keeler/Jones.html

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  4. JJ says:

    Here’s the thing. I enjoyed the language and the challenge that such density of purpose raised in reading The Shark-Skin Book, but the plot overall is kinda…hmmm. And then that solution to X. Jones is abslute and utter bunkum — I’d be furious if I’d trudged through 200+ pages of that sort of prose only for that to be the solution. So this leaves me at a real quandary — to proceed or not to proceed? There’s another Keeler locked room puzzle that was published by Ramble House, The Affair of the Bottled Deuce, that I’d be more tempted to try if I didn’t fear it was going to be a bloody waste of time…!

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  5. Jason Half says:

    I’m glad you posted a review of a book by Harry Stephen Keeler. He’s an author whose reputation, for me, has most fearfully preceded him, and in those few moments when I thought I might be in the mood to sample one of his bizarre and baroque books, I would always shy away, afraid that the prose would be both hyperventilated and impenetrable even as it entertains. (It feels like that’s what you came across with The Shark-Skin Book.) So for now, he continues to be an author who I want to experience through the observations of others — once removed from the direct source like viewing an eclipse through shaded glass — and one day will gather the courage to give HSK a try…

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  6. Pingback: Best Offences: My favourite crime reads of 2016 | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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