They’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