New Exhibition: Death by Gimmick!!! The Weird Side of Detective Fiction

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On display in the Lincoln Room this summer is a new exhibition, “Death By Gimmick!!! The Weird Side of Detective Fiction.”

Detective fiction by its very nature abounds with (or, some may argue, is plagued by) gimmicks. From the locked room to the twist ending to the eccentric detective, all aspects of this genre–plot, setting, and character—hinge on tricks, ploys, and clever strategies designed to fool, confound, frustrate, charm, and enchant devoted readers who are always looking for increasingly ingenious ways of thwarting their expectations.

Some authors, however, have gone beyond the normal shenanigans of the genre to create gimmicks that push their fiction into the territory of the bizarre. This summer, the Lilly Library pays tribute to some of the genre’s odder authors and also to the publishing houses that deployed truly ingenious marketing strategies to make their detective fiction all the more puzzling and appealing to readers for whom tricks are true treats.

Case #1 present a gamut of gimmicks, including Edgar Wallace’s 1905 novel The Four Just Men, which Wallace published without a solution and offered a huge prize (£250) to the reader with the correct solution; unfortunately, he forgot to specify that only one reader would win the prize, leaving many would-be sleuths disappointed. Also included are Dennis Wheatley’s innovative “Crime Dossiers,” in which the reader is presented with all of the evidence that a team of investigating detectives would need to solve a crime. Print material includes cablegrams, transcripts of interviews, handwritten letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings. Also included are bits of physical evidence: hair, cigarette butts, a fragment of a bloodstained curtain, and “poison” pills. After carefully considering all the clues, the reader is invited to tear open the sealed solution to see if he or she has solved the case.

Case #2 celebrates the work of Harry Stephen Keeler, the strangest writer of detective fiction ever to have lived. He created a gimmicky writing style that is almost unique in literature that he dubbed the “webwork plot.” He takes different “strands” (characters, objects, and events) that have nothing to do with each other and weaves them into a web of outrageous coincidences and odd events that end in a surprising and utterly implausible denouement. Keeler was born and raised in Chicago, and most of his novels are set there. His version of Chicago, “the London of the West,” is brimming with eccentrics, freaks, murderers, madmen, and thieves. Within the pages of his books readers can meet such characters as Luke McKraken (a yeggman, or safecracker), Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel (a husband-baiting temptress), Legga the Human Spider, Simon Grundt (the mentally handicapped janitor-turned-detective), Wah Hung Fung (Chinese mafia boss and rare book collector), André Marceau (known midget-hater), and Screamo the Clown (a dead clown).

Cases #3 and 4 display some of the gimmicks that paperback publishers of the 1930s and 40s used to make books more appealing to consumers. These cases show off Ace Doubles and Dell Mapbacks newly-acquired by the Lilly Library. Ace Doubles offer the readers two novels in one; read one (such as Weep for a Wanton), flip it over and read another (such as Dally with a Deadly Doll). Dell Mapbacks featured a map of a key location from the story on the back cover—the scene of the crime, an English Manor, or a small town with a terrible secret.

Most fans of detective fiction are drawn to the genre for a peculiarly paradoxical pleasure. On the one hand, the detective story is very familiar—the format, rules, character types, and plot points have changed little since the days of Sherlock Holmes; however, the mystery reader is always also craving something new, different, and strange. This exhibition showcases authors and publishers who successful captured the fleeting tension between familiarity and innovation that makes gimmicky detective fiction so much fun.

Curated by Rebecca Baumann, Education & Outreach Librarian