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"The Worst Writer in the World."

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I don't read crime fiction, but this guy sounds so awful that I may have to order one of his books.

[B]The Worst Writer in the World [/B]
December 21, 2005

It is common for best-selling authors to be asked for a quotation, or blurb, that can be used on the cover of another author's book. Millions of fans enjoy Mary Higgins Clark, for instance, and many authors think that some admiring words from her to place on the front cover of a first novel will entice readers to try the new book.

Such an endorsement is much prized, so one may be confident that a week doesn't go by when Ms. Clark, John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and other superstars of mystery fiction aren't asked for a few words. These three writers, like most of those in the mystery-writing world, are extremely nice, polite, and generous people. So what do they do when asked to blurb a book they don't like?

Some say they're too busy to read the book. Some pretend the request never arrived. But at least one major figure, whom I regret must remain anonymous, has learned the art of providing words that say nothing. He has, over the years, provided numerous blurbs, including: "Now this is a book!"; "I've never read anything like this"; and "This is really something."

He has not, as far as I know, said, "You should waste no time in getting this book and reading it."

I am reminded of this by a copy of a book that recently arrived on my desk with a press release laid into it. The book is "The Riddle of the Traveling Skull" (McSweeney's, 262 pages, $18) by Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), who has long held the position of the worst writer of mystery fiction who ever lived.

Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail,you'd need to think about it.

The press release is honest while trying to put a positive spin on the awfulness of the book it is attempting to promote. It has this to say about Keeler: "Keeler is sometimes called the best worst writer ever - the Ed Wood of the mystery genre. His plots consist of one jaw-droppingly unlikely coincidence after another; his writing reads like a drunken translation, filled with clangorous similes and characters spouting loopy 'dialects.'"

Additional phrases include "dozens of dumfounding novels" and "a thing of wonder," neither of which can be denied, but you have to question whether this is desirable. Watching a horde of lobsters attack a swimmer and devour him before your eyes might be "a thing of wonder," but there are better ways to spend a summer day. Press quotes on Keeler include "Mr. Keeler is incomparable" (San Francisco Chronicle), "Mr. Keeler is possessed of a wild and daring imagination" (Boston Globe) and - not included in the press release - "All [his] novels are written in Choctaw" (New York Times).

It is, of course, impossible to provide a plot summary of a book that has no plot, or, perhaps more accurately, has 100 plots, all leading to nothing. It was Keeler's methodology when constructing a book to reach into a thick file of newspaper clippings that he maintained, pull out a handful at random, and try to interlace them into a single narrative - an attempt at which he failed so abysmally that one can only stand back in awe.

While I do not have sufficient skill to provide you with even a rudimentary plot synopsis, I do have the ability to give you a taste of the author's writing style, a word I use loosely with regard to Keeler. Here's some of Chapter 1 (titled "A Chinaman He Catch Himse'f a Light!") of this bizarre agglomeration.

It must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney talking Englishman with the long-beaked Sherlock-Holmesian cap; nor of the latter's "Barr-Bag" which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, exconvict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of - in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel - or Suing Sophie!

The punctuation and usage are accurately reproduced here, which can only make one wonder if the formidable publishing house of E.P. Dutton employed a copy editor in 1934, when "The Riddle of the Traveling Skull" was originally published, or if the person filling that job merely threw up his hands after a few pages and, in the vernacular of the day, said the equivalent of "whatever!"

To be fair, there are several scholars of the mystery genre who believe reading Keeler is fun. I expect they take home the Christmas tree that is lopsided and the ugliest dog in the pound because it's so achingly homely that it's cute. They go to Ed Wood movies and listen to the music of John Cage because they feel they're the only ones who can appreciate the truly dreadful.

Not me.When given a dinner choice of a porterhouse steak with truffled potatoes or a bowl of maggots, I'll go for the steak every time.When given a choice of reading Keeler or, well, anything else, including "Great French War Heroes of the 20th Century," I'll leave the Keeler to a more discerning taste than my own.


Has anyone here thought THIS poorly of a writer?