The Key to Yesterday

July 10, 2012

I get so excited about books that feature a main character with memory loss, but I generally end up disappointed. I have yet to find a pre-1923 amnesia-centric story that gives me what I want. Charles Neville Buck’s The Key to Yesterday gave me very little of what I wanted, but at the same time, it’s probably the best public domain amnesia novel I’ve read. If that’s a thing.

I mean, it’s also kind of silly. It begins with painter Robert A. Saxon falling half in love at first sight with a girl named Duska. And then Saxon confesses to his friend Steele that he steers clear of women because he has no knowledge of his life before about six years ago and he might already be married or something. But whatever. We know he’s going to fall in love with Duska. We knew it before we knew her ridiculous name.

Here’s the deal: Saxon is a name he made up for himself. He found himself out West somewhere with no memory and became a cowboy. Then he became an artist, although he didn’t really get good until he became acquainted with the work of Frederick Marston, a great modern painter. People say he’s Marston’s greatest disciple, but that he could be better than Marston if he stopped copying him. Marston, meanwhile, apparently wanders the world incognito, sending unsigned canvases back to his agent in Paris. Also, Saxon’s got a rusty key that he carries around, apparently from the time before he lost his memory, and he believes that he’ll solve the mystery of his past when he figures out what it opens.

Anyway, Saxon and Duska fall in love and he explains to her that he doesn’t know who he is or whether he’s married or something. And he also explains to her how that South American guy at the dinner party the second time they met, the one who told the story about the revolutionary nearly getting executed and then embezzling a couple of hundred thousand dollars, was really pointedly telling the story to Saxon, and he thinks he might be the guy in the story, especially since he has a corroboratory scar. He sticks around long enough to paint a portrait of Duska, which is, of course, the best work he’s ever done, and then he goes off to South America to research his past.

He quickly finds a guy who recognizes him as George Carter, and assumes he’s found his identity, but things may not be that simple. Basically, you’ve got three mysterious figures: Carter, Marston, and Saxon himself, and your job as the reader is to try and figure out which of them might be identical with each other.

It’s kind of a crazy book, bouncing back and forth between idyllic Kentuckian countryside, a revolution-ridden South American capitol, and the Latin Quarter of Paris, and too many loose ends aren’t dealt with. Also, I wanted to like Duska a lot more than I did, and I’m not sure what would have had to happen to accomplish that. But the book also managed to be suspenseful and exciting, and if none of the subplots were really satisfying on their own, there were enough little bits of awesomeness to make it a lot of fun on the whole. It took a while for me to get on board with The Key to Yesterday, but once I did I stayed there.



  1. I haven’t run into many amnesia stories either, but one I’ve read recently might appeal: The Rest Hollow Mystery, Rebecca Newman Porter (1922). Knowing that it’s an amnesia story is a little bit of a spoiler, as the story drops you into the protagonist’s somewhat disoriented post-trauma perspective without explanation, but it has some fun twists.

    • Ooh — I am intrigued. Thanks for the rec.

    • Do you have any information about the author, Rebecca Newman Porter? I’m coming up with almost a complete blank. Thanks!

      • Sorry, no. It looks like Googling for “Rebecca N Porter” instead of “Rebecca Newman Porter” turns up more useful results, though, like this collection of publications: http://www.unz.org/Author/PorterRebeccaN

  2. Now I’ll have to read both of these. I like amnesia!

    • Amnesia books are awesome.

  3. He’s Marston, isn’t he?

    • Why would I answer that?

      • I’ll take that as a yes? ;) I seriously want to read this now.

        • You should read it! It’s not very good, but it’s fun.

  4. Sort of a mish-mash of a plot. The whole South American episode was a bit superfluous… on the whole I felt that there were two books combined here to form a somewhat disappointing whole. Buck had the kernel of a cracking story in the Carter character, and it’s a pity he didn’t develop that one separately.

    BTW, just read The Career of Katherine Bush on the recommendation of your review – what an interesting book. Thanks for drawing it to our attention.

    • Yeah, the South American thing should have been it’s own book, and it seems like Buck only wrote half of it. So many things there didn’t get wrapped up. The whole book felt really haphazard, but somehow that sort of seemed appropriate, and added to the experience for me.

      I’m glad you like Katherine Bush. Its so weird and interesting, and it deserves to be read a lot more than it is.

  5. I’ve run across two more amnesia stories in the last month — must be something in the air.

    They’re both by James Hay, Jr., who seems to have had a thing about memory and psychoanalysis. My teasers:

    The Man Who Forgot (1916)
    Mr. Smith goes to Washington and quickly becomes the de facto leader of the prohibition movement, as well as the preferred suitor of Edith Mallon, daughter of a senator firmly in the anti-prohibition camp. As Smith’s leadership of the cause inspires followers from across the country and Congress inches closer to a Constitutional amendment, his opponents strive to exploit his one weakness: John Smith suffers from alcohol-induced total amnesia, and knows nothing — good or ill — of his past life.

    Mrs. Marden’s Ordeal (1918)
    Ruth Marden is unable to love her husband George, and suspects him of being too attentive to her college friend Marjorie, who has just become engaged to Ruth’s good friend Charlie Corcoran. Ruth throws a dance, at which Marjorie dumps Charlie, Ruth quarrels with George, and Ruth loses twelve hours of her memory, during which Marjorie is found strangled on the conservatory. Charlie is the prime suspect, and Ruth’s evidence can save or convict him, if only she can recover her memory of those missing hours.

    • Ooh, interesting. Are they good?

      • Well, good is so subjective. :]. The first is more of a political fantasy than anything, imagining how a prohibition amendment might get passed (seems like an unlikely event to me.) The amnesia is mainly thrown in to provide a false sense of danger. The second is a perfectly good murder mystery — not exceptional, but a pleasant read.

        • I sounds like they’re both totally readable, which is good enough for me :)

          It seems a little unfair to say that a prohibition amendment sounds like fantasy, though, considering, you know, the 18th amendment.

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