Westrel Keen (Mr. Keen)

Created by Robert W. Chambers
(1865-1933)
Developed for radio by Frank and Anne Hummert

Robert W. Chambers was an American author who, over a long career, cranked out over seventy novels in assorted genres, mostly historical and romantic works. But in the beginning he wrote mostly fantasy and horror. In fact, his first successful work was a collection of weird tales entitled The King in Yellow (1895), which purportedly had a huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft, and no doubt enjoyed a boost in sales when the first season of HBO’s True Detective television series revolved around a string of crimes committed by the elusive “Yellow King.” 

But The King in Yellow was not Chambers’ biggest contribution to pulp culture–in the early part of the twentieth century, he wrote a handful of short stories for The Saturday Evening Post and The Idler, about WESTREL KEEN, the “Tracer of Lost Persons.”

Keen and Co., the agency he managed, was a going concern, occupying prime office space in New York City, and employing a large staff that includes a “gaily liveried negro” as a servant/receptionist. The firm was so successful, in fact, that personal interviews with Mr. Keen were, of necessity, made “a week in advance.”

As for Mr. Keen, he was “a tall, grey man, faultlessly dressed in a drey suit, and wearing white spats… the lean, well-groomed type of gentleman suggested a retired colonel of cavalry, unmistakably well-bred fromends of his dropping gray mustache to his immaculate spats.” He was also prone to miraculous leaps of deduction (rarely, if ever, explained) that would make Sherlock Holmes gasp in astonishment.

Nonetheless, the stories are fun reads, full of the detective fiction hokum of the era, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, Still, somebody must have recalled them fondly, because thirty years later the character re-emerged on the radio. “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons” and ran an amazing eighteen years and comprised almost 1700 episodes.

This Mr. Keen was often more of a matchmaker-for-hire than a detective. Most sources for the radio show, though, credit producers Frank and Anne Hummert as the creators, although most shows boasted that the show was “based on the novel Mr. Keen.”

It was one of network radio’s longest running detective shows, although listening to it now, it would be difficult to explain exactly why. Mr. Keen was still based in New York city, but now he was a kind, elderly (and rather boring) sleuth, and with the aid of his loyal but bumbling assistant, Mike Clancy, was on the airwaves from 1937 to 1955, logging nearly 20 years of crime solving. The series came out of the soap opera fiction factory of Frank and Anne Hummert and encompassed most of the trite dialogue and snail-paced plotting of daytime serials.

Over the years it changed days, time slots, sponsors, and even networks (although it was usually on CBS). It was a 30 minute weekly show for nearly all of it run, changing to the daily 15-minute show in 1952. Bennett Kilpack was the voice of Mr. Keen and Jim Kelly played Clancy. Later in the run Keen was played by Arthur Hughes and finally, Phil Clarke.

Early in the series, the writers forgot about the title and Mr. Keen just solved murders. But the familiar title, and its theme song, “Someday I’ll Find You”, were simply too popular to change. The plots were so contrived the audience had usually figured out the solution before Mr. Keen tried to explain it to Clancy. Exactly who this duo worked for was never stated; they simply worked cases without the police. Keen was a cordial old gent and Clancy the genial but dull Irishman, and no one in the stories ever seemed to challenge their right to jump in on a case. Aproximately 60 episodes, spanning most the 17 years on the air, still exist today, and the fond meories, among a certain demographic, remain.

Perhaps hoping to cash in on those memories, Aaron Spelling dusted off the original concept, and launched the vaguely similiarly-titled Finder of Lost Loves television series in the  eighties.

But the most amazing twist of all came in 2003, when Moonstone Comics, as part of their Moonstone Noir line, reinvented kindly, elderly Mr. Keen as a big, mean-looking black dude. Perhaps this was in retaliation for the obnoxious caricature of blacks in the original short stories. This was no some softie reuniting lost lovers, but a tireless manhunter. Moonstone promised “Action, violence, love, loss, and psychosis,” and they pretty much delivered. Though I have to wonder why didn’t they just make up their own character?

I’m guessing they acquired the rights simply on the off-chance there’d still be a little vague, fuzzy name recognition — over fifty years after the show went off the airwaves, and over eighty years since the character first saw the light of day. But this Mr. Keen is such a departure from the original concept, that I’m giving him his own entry

SHORT STORIES

  • “The Tracer of Lost Persons” (June 17, 1905,  The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Seal of Solomon Cipher” (March 31, 1906, The Saturday Evening Post; aka “Solomon’s Seal”)
  • “Samaris” (May 5, 1906, The Saturday Evening Post)
  • “The Case of Mr. Carden (Part One)” (November 1906, The Idler)
  • “The Case of Mr. Carden (Part Two)” (December 1906, The Idler)
  • “A Pursuit of the Ideal and the Attainment of Happiness (Part One)” (February 1907, The Idler)
  • “A Pursuit of the Ideal and the Attainment of Happiness (Part Two)” (March 1907, The Idler)
  • “Nolens Volens” (April 1907, The Idler)

EVIDENCE

  • “Saints preserve us, Mr. Keen!”
    — Clancy gets excited

RADIO

  • MR. KEEN, TRACER OF LOST PERSONS
    (1937, NBC Blue; 1947, CBS)
    1690 episodes (now mostly lost)
    30-minute episodes, weekly
    15-minute episodes daily
    Writers: Barbara Bates, Lawrence Klee, Robert J. Shaw, Charles J. Gussman, Stedman Coles, David Davidson
    Director: Richard Leonard
    Producers: Frank and Anne Hummert
    Theme Song: “Someday I’ll Find You”
    Starring Bennett Kilpack as MR. KEEN
    (later played by Arthur Hughes and Phil Clarke)
    with Jim Kelly as Clancy
    and Florence Malone as Miss Ellis

    • “The Case of the Girl Who Flirted” (February 3, 1944)
    • “Mr. Treavor’s Secret” (February 17, 1944)
    • “The Case of Murder in the Air” (February (February 24, 1944)
    • “The Case of the Leaping Dog” (April 13, 1944)
    • “The Nightmare Murder Case” (December 14, 1944)
    • “The Case of the Absent-Minded Professor” (March 15, 1945)
    • “The Glamorous Widow” (May 23, 1946)
    • “The Case of Murder and the Star of Death” (May 9, 1949)
    • “The Case of Murder and the Blood-Stained Necklace” (September 15, 1949)
    • “The Yellow Talon Murder Case” (September 22, 1949)
    • “The Silver Dagger Murder Case” (October 13, 1949)
    • “The Case of the Ruthless Murderers” (October 27, 1949)
    • “The Engaged Girl Murder Case” (November 10, 1949)
    • “The Case of the Rushville Murder” January 5, 1950)
    • “The Case of Murder and the Jewel Thief” (February 9, 1950)
    • “The Innocent Flirtation Murder Case” (March 13, 1950)
    • “The Case of the Murdered Detective” (April 6, 1950)
    • “The Country Club Murder Case” (April 20, 1950)
    • “The Case of Murder and the Missing Car” (May 11, 1950)
    • “The Skull and Crossbones Murder Case” (May 18, 1950)
    • “The Broken Window Murder Case” (May 25, 1950)
    • “The Quicksand Murder” (June 1, 1950)
    • “The Photograph Album Murder” (July 27, 1951)
    • “The Silver Candlestick Murder” (March 13, 1952)

COMICS

  • MR. KEEN: TRACER OF LOST PERSONS
    (2003, Moonstone)
    3-issue mini-series
    Story by Justin Gray
    Art by Lee Ferguson

SHORT STORIES

FURTHER REFERENCE

  • Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons (2004, by Jim Cox) Buy this book
Respectfully submitted by Jack French, with additional info by Kevin Burton Smith.

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