Miskatonic University Press

Gores, Hammett and Keeler

joe.gores dashiell.hammett harry.stephen.keeler quotes ross.thomas

I was surprised to find Harry Stephen Keeler mentioned in the Joe Gores novel Hammett (1975), in chapter 27, where Dashiell Hammett (private detective turned writer, but now back on a case) is questioning a young woman:

When she had fled Capone’s Harlem Inn in Stickney, she had hidden in Chicago’s Chinatown for several weeks, until her cash had run out. Then she had gotten a job as a domestic in a rooming house on North State Street. She held it for over two years.

“Mrs. Rotariu was very nice. She called me Crystal and let me call her Anna even though I merely worked for her. The house was owned by a famous author named Keller or something—”

“Harry Stephen Keeler?”

“You know of him?” she exclaimed.

“I’ve read some of his stuff.” Hammett’s voice was flat, and a tense, wary look had entered his eyes.

(The look is not because of the mention of Keeler, but because Hammett has a sense where her story is leading.)

Hammett is set in 1928. Hammett’s second published short story, “Immortality,” was in the November 1922 issue of 10 Story Book, which Keeler edited from 1919 to 1940—so Keeler sent Hammett his second paycheque as a writer! Did Gores know this? Why did he mention Keeler? It’s an obscure reference to make.

Here is the full text of “Immortality.”

I know little of science or art or finance or adventure. I have never written anything except brief and infrequent letters to my sister in Sacramento. My name, were it not painted on the windows of my shop, would be unknown to even the Polish family that lives and has many children across the street. Yet I shall live in the memories of men when those names are on every one’s lips now are forgotten, and when the events of today are dim. I do not know whether I shall be remembered as a great wit, a dreamer of strange dreams, a great thinker, or a philosopher; but I do know that I, Oscar Blichy, the grocer, shall be an immortal. I have saved nearly seventeen thousand dollars from the profits of my shop during the last twenty years. I shall add to this amount as much as I can until the day of my death, and then it is to go to the writer of the best biography of me!

Ballantine paperback cover
Ballantine paperback cover

I found the Hammett-Keeler connection in volume 40 (December 2002) of Keeler News, the publication of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society (of which I am a proud member). I don’t know if the Hammett mention has been noted, so I’ll tell Richard Polt, who runs the Society. Perhaps a Keeler devotee knows enough about his life to say whether he really did own a boarding house. (There is no full biography of Keeler; I suggest this as potential dissertation topic.)

Hammett went on to be one of the greatest of all crime writers, and Keeler one of the strangest. I like them both.

And I like Joe Gores, another great crime writer (in fact a PI turned writer) and this is a crackerjack book. I’m rereading all his stuff and enjoying it enormously. Next I’ll rewatch the Wenders-Coppola 1982 film adaptation, co-written by Ross Thomas.