The Case of the Two Strange Ladies (Harry Stephen Keeler) Review
Has a plot twist in a book ever caused you to exclaim aloud? Not until reading 'The Case of the Two Strange Ladies' was my answer to that question, "Yes."
This book was my second Harry Stephen Keeler novel (following the masterful 'The Riddle of the Traveling Skull'), and it was an incredibly enjoyable read that served as more evidence of this gifted Chicago author's many talents. This story concerns Tommy Skirmont, a Yankee reporter in the South, whose tenure at a newspaper and engagement to a local girl will be terminated unless he can identify the two unknown, decapitated women who lie in the town morgue. The awkwardness of the protagonist, the urgency of the situation, and the larger than life characters all bring to mind my two favorite Preston Sturges movies ('Hail the Conquering Hero' and 'Christmas in July'), though the situation herein with the mutilated bodies is darker and far, far weirder than anything in those pictures.
Although 'The Case of the Two Strange Ladies' is a shorter book than 'The Riddle of the Traveling Skull,' the protagonist's plight, his playful romance, and his back story are better developed, and the setting, Southern Town, is the more finely detailed of the two. Sprawling, lyrical sentences that are nearly as rich as Lovecraft's loving descriptions of coastal New England paint this fictional rural environment--check out the first two paragraphs of Chapter II for some top examples of this. Keeler's version of southern dialect is hilarious (I believe intentionally), though occasionally a bit abstruse and adds even more flavor to his southern world. Populated with boldly caricatured inhabitants such as Colonel Dixenberry Lee and Ocie Frizzel, this world is hyperbolic and engrossing.
My one real criticism for this book is that it is clearly a short novel that has been grown to a more regular length with a marginally related short story. Many authors have made 'novels' with patchwork/episodic narratives (eg. Arthur Machen's 'The Three Imposters,' Robert Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer,' Sax Rohmer's 'Brood of the Witch Queen,' etc.), but the problem here is that this particular detour--about a purloined diamond necklace--is a normal, locked-room mystery (albeit with a very clever resolution worthy of Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle). This tale lacks the weirdness, atmosphere, characterization, and urgency of the main story and feels like filler, though it is enjoyable to a lesser degree.
The superior central thread with Tommy Skirmont is eventually resumed, and the incredible surprise that Keeler supplies for a resolution elicited an audible "Holy shit!" from my mouth, which was a first. As I read and reread this stunningly clever (and shocking) revelation, which is probably the single best plot twist I've come across in my entire life, I was very, very pleased that more books by this incredible author were en route to my apartment...