Mr. Keen is an enigmatic older man who promises to find anyone, anywhere. No find, no fee - and the fee is scaled appropriately based on the task and the client. He's aided in his task by a shadowy network of talented experts and a legion of attractive young typists.
In the five interlinked stories of The Tracer of Lost Persons, the actual business of tracing goes on in the background. When Mr. Keen is introduced to each of the five protagonists, he does so in a curt, businesslike way - generally with a bit of showing off:
"Mrs. Regan's Danny is doing six months in Butte, Montana. Break it to her as mercifully as possible. He is a bad one. We make no charge. The truck driver, Becker, can find his wife at her mother's house, Leonia, New Jersey. Tell him to be less pig-headed or she'll go for good some day. Ten dollars. Mrs. M., No. 36001, can find her missing butler in service at 79 Vine Street, Hartford, Connecticut. She may notify the police whenever she wishes. His portrait is No. 170529, Rogues' Gallery. Five hundred dollars. Miss K. (No. 3679) may send her letter, care of Cisneros & Co., Rio, where the person she is seeking has gone into the coffee business. If she decides that she really does love him, he'll come back fast enough. Two hundred and fifty dollars. Mr. W. (No. 3620) must go to the morgue for further information. His repentance is too late; but he can see that there is a decent burial. The charge: one thousand dollars to the Florence Mission. You may add that we possess his full record." (Chapter VII)
However, Mr. Chambers is less interested in the criminal than in the matrimonial. Each of the book's five stories has essentially the same plot: a young man looks for love, Mr. Keen finds it for them.
From the purely romantic perspective, the first story, that of Mr. Gatewood, is probably the best. Gatewood is "thirty-three, agreeable to look at, equipped with as much culture and intelligence as is tolerated east of Fifth Avenue and west of Madison." He both lives and drinks at the Lenox Club (where Stephen Siward is also a member). He does a bit of business, but mostly saunters around being a genial waste of space. His own friend, Mr. Kerns sums him his situation deftly in a burst of withering sarcasm:
"I can't bear to watch your mental and spiritual dissolution--a man like you, with all your latent ability and capacity for being nobody in particular--which is the sort of man this nation needs. Do you want to turn into a club-window gazer like Van Bronk? Do you want to become another Courtlandt Allerton and go rocking down the avenue--a grimacing, tailor-made sepulcher?--the pompous obsequies of a dead intellect?--a funeral on two wavering legs, carrying the corpse of all that should be deathless in a man? Why, Jack, I'd rather see you in bankruptcy--I'd rather see you trying to lead a double life in a single flat on seven dollars and a half a week--I'd almost rather see you every day at breakfast than have it come to that!" (Chapter I)
Gatewood's problem is that he has an ideal. Although he'll spot fragments of the ideal in other women - perhaps the right hair or a cute laugh - he's yet to see enough of it come together in one full-figured body. At Kerns' insistence, Gatewood employs the Tracer of Lost Persons to find a mythical woman. He puts his ideal to the test by briefing Mr. Keen to track down a missing young lady that ticks all the right boxes. It is a brilliant plan in the pre-Soulmates age - Mr. Keen serves as a search engine for all the young lovelies, Gatewood can then select the one with the best profile picture.
The search is derailed immediately and spectacularly when Gatewood is required to brief a particularly lovely specimen of typist, Miss Southerland. While Mr. Keen smirks in his padded chair, Gatewood fails to remember even the most rudimentary detail of his long-imagined perfect woman. He's smitted at first smite. There's the barest minimum of tension and the two are quickly joined in holy matrimony. Marriage!
Two of the other stories follow the same rom-com suit. However, The Tracer of Lost Persons takes a slightly different tack with the final two tales. In both of these, there's an element of the occult, although, unlike his more overtly supernatural tales, the mysticism is cheerfully benign.
Mr. Harren is a soldier who, years ago, spotted his perfect woman. They locked eyes and never met again. But he has seen her - not just in his dreams, but as a waking vision. As well as being extremely inconvenient (she keeps appearing on battlefields), his obsession has grown. The young woman is wearing a strange ring and always surrounded by eldritch sigils. As a result, Harren has delved into the Seal of Solomon to find a clue as to her identity.
What's particularly charming about Harren's story is that Mr. Chambers takes a Kipling-like approach and insists on showing his work (the Just So Stories were published four years earlier). Whereas the other stories can't get their protagonist to the altar quickly enough, this one slows down to a crawl as Mr. Chambers, through the voice of Mr. Keen, explains the rudiments of code-breaking to his commercial audience. Although the code itself is simple, there are a few clever touches.
The final story is in a similar vein. Mr. Burke is an Egyptologist and adventurer. Whilst swashbuckling in the Nile region, he stumbled upon a lost tomb. In the old ruin was a young lady - the perfectly preserved body of an ancient Egyptian temple dancer. That Burke falls in love is creepy in a lot of ways. First, she's dead. Second, he consistently describes her as "child-like" and "scarcely eighteen" (which, given life expectancy in 2500 BC is probably the equivalent of a decrepit 82). Third, as judging by the description of her "ivory skin", she's clearly some sort of cave-creature - the palest person to ever grace the shores of ancient Egypt. Fourth, in case you'd forgotten, she's still dead.
Burke's dreams are interrupted by a pair of mercenary scoundrels. They distract Burke ("Look, Thailand!") and run off with the dancing girl. Fortunately, Mr. Keen is already on the case.
Mr. Chambers love of hunting, riding and the outdoors comes out quite frequently. But he was also a collector of more esoteric trivia as well - he knew quite a bit about armor, for example, something that rears its head in The King in Yellow. Although the two occult-inspired stories in The Tracer of Lost Persons are more romantic than mysterious, they serve to show off not just the breadth of his knowledge, but the joy he took in sharing it. More practically, those two tales also display the versatility of the story's central concept - evidence to Mr. Keen's long-lived appeal to creators of radio, television and comics.
Unlike Mr. Chambers' other romances, The Tracer of Lost Persons is almost entirely tongue-in-cheek - especially the low comedy of the artist's tale. In fact, the only story that takes itself at all seriously is the unfortunate tale of the comatose temple dancer - the story that is, in and of itself, the most ridiculous. In the others, there's a charming combination of self-awareness and genuine optimism. These are good-natured, ordinary people that Mr. Keen is helping out of a sense of patriarchial good-temper. As Kerns rants at the beginning of the book, no one involved is exceptional - they're simply the sort of benignly pleasant folk that make up the bulk of this great country. And, appropriately, The Tracer of Lost Persons is filled with the sort of benignly pleasant tales that seem to make up the bulk of this great author's work as well.