Harry Stephen Keeler's The Skull in the Box series summarized

CONTENT WARNING: This thread contains a summary of a series of books published from 1939-1941 and thus the book itself contains antiquated terminology along with racist and sexist attitudes. I will attempt to keep actual quotes from racist or sexist portions out of the thread, but chapter titles will be included, some with said antiquated or racist terminology.

The first book has been summarized previously here and also here(from 52:00 to 1:18:30 or so) so I will begin with the sequel The Man With The Crimson Box

Chapter 1: Bad News for Big Gus!

In Northern State Penitentiary, located in Moundsville Illinois, convict Gus L. McGurk alias Big Gus alias Muscle-In, mops the floor the prison with more vigor than he normally would, for he is three days from being released from jail. He sees fellow convict "Educated" Brink(so called because of his high school diploma) carrying Convict No. 1, a cat belonging to the warden who serves as a mascot for the prison. Educated releases Convict No. 1 and pretends to begin to look for him, and whispers to Gus that he has bad news he needs to communicate to Gus in private, news that might mean the electric chair for Gus. They slip into a faucet room and Educated reveals that the State's Attorney in Chicago has got the skull of Wah Lee!


  • edited 2020-01-04 20:17:15
    My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 2: Concerning a Negro Laborer, a Girl from New Zealand, and a Chinaman's Skull!

    Educated tells Big Gus the source of the information: Handsome Harry, a new member of the Tritt Mob, has been dating and getting information from Beryl Burlinghame, a young woman from New Zealand working as an office girl for the State's Attorney. Burlinghame is a kind of protegee for the State's Attorney, due to a favor her father did for said S. A.

    Harry learns from Burlinghame about a black laborer named Moses Klump, who, while digging for a gas main intersection in Goose Island on the ruins of what was once the Schlitzheim Brewery, discovers the skull of Wah Lee, a Chinese youth murdered by Big Gus and his associates. Klump initially takes the skull with the intention of sawing off chunks of it to use as good luck charms while gambling, but later learns from a fellow laborer about the history of the Schlitzheim Brewery and how the police dug up a headless corpse they were unable to identify as Wah Lee in said location.

    Upon examining the skull, Klump sees that part of the bone has been cleared away from one side of the nose from some kind of cutting. Klump also discovers a hole in the back of the skull, and realizes a bullet must have entered from the back of the skull and shattered the back wall of the left eye on its way out(this is distinct from the missing nasal wall, I mention this because it might be important.) Klump prints the initials M. K. on the back of the skull and goes to the S. A's office. 

    Educated finishes his story by telling Big Gus about how the S.A. is due back in Chicago tomorrow morning early and before the day's out, will likely have Gus indicted for murder and kidnapping.
  • edited 2020-01-05 01:15:49
    My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 3: "In a Safe-in the Klondike Building"

    Educated goes on to explain that he gathered the information Handsome Harry acquired via a mutual friend of Gus, Educated, and Harry's, a certain Jerry the Snake. In addition it turns out that the skull is not in city hall, but in an office across the street in the Klondike Building where the S. A(Louis Vann, known as Lock-The-Stable-Door Vann to crookdom for his belief that the criminal will always return to the scene of the crime) has maintained since his days as a lawyer. This is the office Beryl Burlinghame works in, and which he maintains partially out of nostalgia for his old days. Furthermore it turns out that Gus once tried to bribe Vann back in his days as a lawyer, but Vann refused to take the bait. 

    Educated goes on to explain that the skull is contained in a safe in the Klondike Building, while the deposition of Moses Klump is contained in a safety deposit box jointly owned by Handsome Harry and Burlinghame. During the conversation Educated mentions that his debt to Gus derives from Gus taking care of him after the death of Educated's father, who was a criminal associate of Gus's.

    Upon taking in all this information Gus begins to hatch a plan. Gus wants Educated, who is a chauffeur for the warden, to run an errand for him while he's in Chicago with the warden. The warden it seems, has no fear of Gus escaping, because Gus has only 60 days left in his sentence and will gladly serve it rather than run and risk getting more time. Gus wants Educated to call a number of an associate and tell him everything he just told Gus. Gus pauses as the chapter ends, reluctant to tell Educated the name of his associate.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 4: "Wanted-One "Kite""

    Gus wants Educated to contact a former associate of his who used to work as a mole in either the police department, city hall, or the detective bureau for him and provide info that made Gus "the local Snatch King back w'en Big Al had the alky racket all sewed up for hisself". In order to contact the as-yet-unnamed associate, Educated will phone him and say the words "This is Mr. Szüd of the Harlequinade". Educated must then correctly spell Szüd(pronounced Seed) to the other party on the phone. This party will then contact Big Gus via a kite passed through the front office of the prison, which will read either "Szüd Harlequinade" as a way of saying "I CAN crack the safe by tomorrow" or "Harlequinade Szüd" as a way of saying "I cannot, or won't attempt to". However, as the chapter closes, Gus begins to explain that the latter better NOT be the response because despite being in prison, Gus can still harm the as-yet-unnamed third party!
  • edited 2020-01-09 20:05:27
    My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 5: "Honest Lou
    Chapter 6: A Name-Complete!

    It turns out that if the job is pulled properly, Louis Vann, known as "Lock-The-Stable-Door" Vann to cops and "Honest Lou" to grifters(due to his refusal to take bribes) will be out of a job. The party of which Vann is a member is favored to win the next election, but due to a lack of high-profile collars by Vann, they have told him they are going to run someone else unless in the last week before re-election he can bring a high profile criminal conviction. This is especially important to Vann because he has incurred a series of debts from investments he made with his late father that he has yet to pay off.

    Gus gives Educated the name of the contact, but it is not revealed to the reader. Gus's contact however, was in Gus's old crew together with an Australian ex-con named Venus Baldy(so-named because of his bald scalp on which was tattooed a nude Venus). The contact will get in touch with Venus, who will know someone who can crack the safe in which the skull of Wah Lee is held. Venus and the contact go way back, as they had met when the contact was attempting to buy in on a gold mine, and Venus assisted him in forging the signature of a dead miner.

    If the contact does not go through with this, Gus will give the police the location of a lockbox containing multiple incriminating letters as well as telling the police that the contact was involved in the Wah Lee murder. With this business concluded, Educated exits the room.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 7: A State's Attorney Receives Happy News!

    Louis Vann, the State's Attorney, steps off at Central Passenger Station at Chicago out of a train from St. Louis while contemplating the superiority of train travel to air or boat travel. He is met by his office girl, Beryl Burlinghame, the  23 year old New Zealander office girl who keeps his old office in the Klondike Building, the office where he started practicing law with nothing but "4 thick law books, a diploma, an ancient second-hand iron safe, and no clients". Beryl tells Vann that she has a train to catch attend her sister's wedding in Indianapolis but came early to tell him about the discover of the skull of Wah Lee, a case she is unfamiliar as she was just a girl in New Zealand 13 years ago, in the year 1927 when the murder occurred.

    As she fills in Vann on what Moses Klump told her, she reveals a detail unmentioned by Educated, that a 6 year old Russian-American boy named Vadisclov witnessed Klump uncover the skull. Furthermore, the skull was discovered six feet down, and the reason that the police never found it before was that the body was discovered 3 feet down, and they never dug deeper than 3 feet in the surrounding area so as not to hit the gas line and under the assumption that the criminals would not dig a deeper hole, then dump the body halfway up it. She tells Vann that she put the skull in a safe place and Vann assumes she means that she locked it in the city hall vault, rather than his old second-hand safe.

    Vann is excited about this because it means he can finally put an end to the Parson Gang and in particular "Muscle-In" Gus McGurk, the criminal who was put in jail for collecting the ransom money for Wah Lee's kidnapping. In an aside, Beryl asks Vann why the police darkly refer to him as "Lock-The-Stable-Door" Vann and Vann explains that he learned that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime from a "Nick Carter dime novel" and often posts a policeman at the scene of a crime. Beryl inquires as to why Vann knows so much about the case, having been only a struggling barrister at the time the events transpired.

    Vann explains that Foster Emmons, the former State's Attorney and a friend of Vann's back then had Vann draw up a bill of indictment and write an opening speech for him for the case, both of which, sadly, never got used. Beryl asks for more information in the kidnapping of Wah Lee and Vann is happy to oblige.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 8: The Kidnapping of Wah Lee

    The facts of the case are these

    Wah Lee was the only son of Wah Lung a wealthy Chinese restaurateur who ran a place called the Famous Golden Inn. Wah Lee on the 25th of September in 1927 went to the hospital to have a difficult sinus operation performed. His father being paranoid due to the fact that Wah Lee has been the target of a previous attempted kidnapping, Lee apparently did not divulge his intended movements to anyone but his father on the day of the kidnapping. Never the less witnesses said he was forced into a van by four white men. days later, Wah Lung was phoned by an anonymous caller who claimed that they had Wah Lee and demanded a 50,000 dollar ransom in five and ten dollar bills. This money was delivered and collected, but Wah Lee never returned.

    However, unbeknownst to Wah Lung, 1000 dollars of the reward money was a collection of marked 5 dollar bills marked by a clerk who suspected from the look on Wah Lung's face that the money would be used for ransom. Three years later, in 1927, an ex-con named Job Breeden, who had been in jail during the whole Wah Lee incident, is caught by the very same clerk getting change for a five. Breeden claims he got the money from "Muscle-In" Gus McGurk, so called because he would "muscle-in" on schemes proposed by weaker criminals. Gus is found possessing a heading torn from the St Louis Record bearing two chinese characters written with brush reading Wah Lee, the 1000 dollars of ransom money, and a Parson's outfit. The last detail identifies him as a member and the possible leader of the Parson gang, a gang of criminals who would dress as parsons to avoid police suspicion.

    Gus was the nephew of Fean McGurk, a stockholder in the brewery on goose island who gave his nephew caretakership of said brewery. In the testing room of the brewery, the police discover a headless body. Unfortunately for the law, a parson by the name of Horace Mylrea appears and tells the police that he had communicated with Wah Lee after the kidnapping who had merely run away from home after a quarrel with his father. Furthermore, an old woman, Mary Grubbs, claims that the headless body is that of her son Dolf, who was murdered with an elephant gun by her other son Brunker.

    Given this information, Gus and his lawyer, Flemming Wiles claim that Gus was not involved in the kidnapping, but merely muscled in and claimed to be, and took the ransom money, and that the brush-made mark on the newspaper was not made by Wah Lee but deceased fellow criminal, a Japanese man named Suko Haburo. Gus plead guilty to extortion alone, and was given 15 years in jail, a sentence that was reduced to 10 years with good behavior.

    Vann ends the chapter by resolving to call the prison the moment he gets back to his office, in case Gus is going to get out of jail before he can be indicted for the murder and kidnapping of Wah Lee.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 9: And Five Years Later

    After the events of the case, it was discovered that Mylrea was a morphine addict who had been bribed into claiming he met Wah Lee with the promise of two years worth of heroin. Mary Grubbs, the other witness, died falling off a bridge under suspicious circumstances, but was found to have mysteriously paid off a 5000 dollar loan she didn't seem to have the money to pay off. 

    Vann tells Beryl about how he'd love to see the look on the vault custodian's face when he tells him tomorrow morning about all this, and Beryl explains that she locked the skull in the safe in his old office. Vann is terrified by this, as the safe could easily be opened by even an unskilled safe cracker by knocking off the handle and dial off with a sledgehammer and pulling out the bolt. He phones Moses Klump to make sure that the latter never told anyone else about the skull, only to find out that Klump died when a wall fell on him while he was doing construction work on a warehouse. Vann, however is satisfied that Klump died naturally and never told anyone about the skull, and goes off to his office.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 10: In Room 806

    Vann goes in the elevator in the Klondike building and has a short chat with Peters, the elevator attended, who reveals that Adolph Reibach, a German night watchmen, left duty early last night due to a drinking problem. Afterwards, Vann discovers his office has been broken into and that the skull is gone. Furthermore, the office contains the murdered corpse of Adolph Reibach!

    Chapter 11: Murder at 10:43 PM

    45 minutes after discovering his safe broken into, Vann has a conversation about the case with a detective, Rufus Scott, who has just finished examining the scene of the crime. Scott believes that the criminal hid inside the building before it was closed, then crept up to Vann's office and opened the safe with a sledge. Reibach however, heard the disturbance and rushed into the office, where he was killed by the crook with a sledgehammer. Scott is convinced the crime occurred at 10:43, because Reibach kept fastidious notes of his movements every 40 minutes and his last entry was at 10:10. Furthermore during the struggle Reibach's watch was smashed and stopped at 10:43, and while reeling in from the blow, Reibach smashed a clock on the wall which stopped at 10:43. Scott knows the final clock was accurate because a Scotchman named Angus McIntosh down the hall said it was the clock he'd use to check the time on his watch and as Scotchmen are notoriously frugal and are loath to walk further than they have to and wear down their shoes, or spend four cents using the phone to find the time, it MUST be an accurate clock.

    Scott also believes the killer must have been in some way distinctive, which is why he didn't leave Reibach alive as a witness, he(the killer) having some unusual trait such as red hair or a deformity.  Finally, Scott believes that the killer left the office at 10:45 carrying his sledgehammer in a violin case
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 12: At the Inn of the Golden Dragon

    Wah Lung, the owner and proprietor of the In of the Golden Dragon, a successful restaurant is getting ready for the day's work when a reporter from the Chicago Despatch walks in and introduces himself as Hugh Vann(the kid brother of Louis Vann). Vann tells Wah Lung what his brother told him, which is mainly information the reader already knows so forgive me for skimming over it, and asks for Lung's statement on the case. Wah Lung responds to this by giving him two possible quotes, either of which he can use for his piece on the affair: The first statement is that if he knew where his son's skull was at this moment, he would know the man who was the inside wire of the Parson gang. The second statement is that If he knew WHO the inside wire was, he would not only have his son's skull but evidence to convict the wire and McGurk.

    Vann asks him which of the two statements is his real comment. Wah Lung responds by saying that Confucius once said truth was like the sleeve of a coat, in that if it is turned inside out, it is still truth and tells Vann to take his choice.
  • My dreams exceed my real life
    Chapter 13: When the "Church" offered to help the "Law"

    Officer Daniel "Limp" Kilgallon is on patrol when he meets his old friend, Archbishop Stanley Pell, coming out of a post office. Pell is at the post office with a Professor Mustaire, the head of a school for the deaf and dumb who did important work simplifying sign language to be easier to use. Limp asks Pell for a favor: it turns out Limp has been monitoring a red-headed man standing on a corner with a shoebox with holes poked in it, doing a crossword puzzle on top of the box. Limp asked the man what was in the box, assuming it was a pet, but the man responded by saying he did not speak English. As Limp walked away, he remembered that the police are on the lookout for suspicious characters with a distinguishing characteristic like red hair, and also realizes that the crossword puzzles the man was doing were in English. He asks Pell, who speaks eight languages, to interrogate the man in his own language.

    Pell and Mustaire walk over to the man and Pell asks him what's in the box. The man, looking at Pell and mistaking Mustaire for a deaf mute due to the fact that Mustaire met a former-pupil on the street and greeted him in sign language, tells Pell that the box contains the skull of Wah Lee, stolen from Vann's "Pete"(or safe in the language of crookdom). Realizing Pell is not who he thought he was, he immediately escapes on a street car. This news excites Limp, who knows about the recent development in the Wah Lee case due to having a son who works in Vann's office, and he resolves to have a squad car look for the man.
Sign In or Register to comment.