Tracer of Lost Persons by Robert W. Chambers is a 1906 book that was oft-sighted in the show’s introduction as a bit of a masterwork of detective fiction in the introduction to the 1937-55 radio series Mister Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons and as a basis for the series.
The book does provide some basic foundation for the character in the radio series. Its hero is Mister Keen and he does run a bureau that finds lost persons. The character exudes the type of warmth and kindness that defined Mister Keen in his early years.
However, there are many differences. Unlike in the radio series, Mister Keen does have a first name in the book(Westrel.) Mister Keen does charge fees in the book, although those are occasionally foregone. Like his radio counterpart, he has become quite wealthy through his efforts.
The cases Mister Keen takes in books are different. According to Jim Cox’s book on Mister Keen, the radio version of Mister Keen began by taking on cases of legitimately lost persons from his earliest days before moving on to investigating cold-blooded killings in his later years. While there are indications Mr. Keen does take more typical missing person cases, all of the cases in this book involve helping his clients finding love.
The book is a braided novel, telling connected stories about Mister Keen’s investigations. Truth be told, at least two of these cases don’t involve a search for an actual missing person, but rather a male client presents his ideal woman and expects Mister Keen to find her. In the first story, the client does so without telling Mister Keen what he’s doing and in the final story, the client does so explicitly.
Keen is resourceful and a retired Egyptologist (because it was convenient for the plot) who cracks ciphers when he gets into actual mysteries.
The plots are light and occasionally take turns for the absurd. For example, one story ends with a body that’s been in suspended animation for thousands of years being revived so she can be Keen’s client’s wife. In another story, a female doctor dedicates her life to the study of a disease where only one person has been diagnosed with it, which turns into a plot point because the disease is actually a hoax.
Yet, this is some forgivable as Tracer of Lost Persons doesn’t take itself all that seriously. It’s a light and fluffy read featuring a kindly investigator with the romantic soul who plays Cupid. It’s the type of book you want to read if you’re in a mood to not think much. It’s an interesting curiosity that features a few fun moments and provides a little insight into the origin of one of radio’s longest-running characters.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Tracer of Lost Persons is in the public domain and can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.
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