88 Keyes was a talented piano player and a ruthless killer. He was a slim man, with light hair and narrow eyes. He often smoked cigarettes.
Keyes was a handsome and charming man, who used his popularity with women to his advantage.
Keyes was head of a gang of killers-for-hire that murdered the millionaire A.B. Helmet at the request of Helmet's wife. He later murdered his accomplice singer Jinny Lynn and kept her corpse in his piano. Keyes tried to put the piano into storage, but it was found by Dick Tracy. While Keyes was on the run with Mrs. Helmet (and her insurance money), she fell asleep in his car. Keyes left the car sitting on some railroad tracks, where it was struck by a passenger train, killing Mrs. Helmet.
After the train crew cleared the wreckage from the tracks, 88 mingled among the passengers observing the action to secretly board the train. He was recognized by a porter who prided himself as a jazz authority. Although 88 was able to deny his identity when the porter greeted him, that ruse was impossible to continue when a newspaper seller appeared with newspapers bearing 88's face on the front page and a story about him being wanted by the police. 88 was forced to move down the cars to keep ahead of the seller to avoid being recognized by the passengers until he was forced to hide in the washroom of the final car for the remainder of the trip. The porter who recognized him realized from the newspaper that he had been correct.
Tracy and his team correctly surmised 88's movements during the course of their investigation, and went to the train station in anticipation of 88 arriving. When the train stopped, Tracy was informed by the porter that 88 was on board. However, the attempt to arrest 88 led to a wild chase through the roof of the station until 88 slipped into a nearby employment agency.
Hiding on the Wheaten Farm
Taking advantage of the situation, 88 took a job as a hired hand on George Wheaten's farm, under the alias "Mr. Smith". Keyes proved to be unsuited to the job due to his lack of experience with agricultural work, and was only tolerated because the United States' efforts in World War II made farm labor scarce. Wheaten's adolescent daughter Nellie noticed how well Keyes played the organ and began to show great affection for him.
88 disposed of his musician's union card by tearing it up and tossing the pieces in one of the farm's milk cans. This can eventually made its way to the city, where it was found and brought to the attention of Dick Tracy, who was investigating the murders. The reassembled card in Wheaten's milk delivery proved a direct clue to 88's whereabouts and Tracy and his team proceeded to the farm.
Taking advantage of Nellie's affections, 88 convinced her to help him hide from Tracy. She then agreed to help him steal her father's car and make his escape. Nellie hid in the car as well, eventually revealing her presence to 88, who was annoyed at the added complication. He had Nellie disguise herself as a boy to avoid detection.
They soon encountered Red Bluff, an AWOL Navy Seaman and old friend of Nellie's family. Red recognized 88, and tried to use this knowledge against him. When Nellie discovered that 88 was a killer and fugitive, she tried to wreck the car with all of them in it. Nellie was knocked unconscious while Keyes and Bluff escaped the wreckage. 88 killed Red rather than go on the run with him.
Tracy was on 88's trail and found the body of Red. When Tracy caught up to 88, Keyes had hidden in a cramped tool shack next to a railroad track. Outside the shed Tracy found 88's Music Class ring engraved with his name (it had accidently fallen off his finger when the killer sprung the lock). Knowing that 88 was armed, Tracy refused to take any chances on the fugitive escaping again. Tracy offered 88 a chance to surrender. When Keyes refused to give an answer, Tracy fired bullets from a machine gun into the shed in an X pattern. 88's body (and loaded gun) fell out of the shed, ending the pursuit. Tracy returned Nellie back to the farm.
Appearances in Other Media
1950s Live Action TV Series
88 Keyes appeared in the 1950s live action Dick Tracy television series starring Ralph Byrd. In the episode "The Mosquito Murders", Keyes was played by Lyle Talbot (who also played Big Frost and a character called The Brain).
Archie's TV Funnies
In the 1971 Archie's TV Funnies animated series, 88 Keyes was a thief who used a high-frequency musical recording to commit robberies. Tracy turned the process against Keyes and captured him.
1990 Feature Film
In the 1990 Dick Tracy feature film, 88 Keyes was portrayed by Mandy Patinkin. In the opening credits, his name was spelt "Keys".
88, like the other entertainers at Club Ritz, was overworked and exhausted by Big Boy's relentless demand for rehearsals. When he protests about it, Big Boy slams the key cover on Keyes' fingers, threatening to do worse and the same to Breathless' face. 88 Keyes was called to the city car park by an anonymous person with a raspy voice, where he was given a note and a payment of $5,000 by his mysterious benefactor. The arrangement was that Keyes should give the letter to Big Boy, keeping the sender's identity a secret.
88 was contacted by the faceless person known as "The Blank" and began to act as the go-between for Big Boy and the Blank. Keyes aided the Blank in framing Dick Tracy for the murder of D.A. Fletcher. Following the raid on the Club Ritz, Keyes was one of the few criminals who were taken into custody alive. It is unclear if 88 was aware of the Blank's real identify (or - if he was - when he learned it).
It was implied that 88 had hidden feelings for the singer Breathless Mahoney, as evidenced in the song "What Can You Lose?". Max Allan Collins' novelization of the film portrays 88 as Breathless' paramour. The novel implies that Big Boy and Lips Manlis both allow 88 to spend so much time with Breathless because they believe he is gay.
In the follow-up novel Dick Tracy Goes to War, 88 has paid his debt to society and is once again playing piano, this time at the club owned by Vitamin Flintheart. 88 reveals his real name: Clarence Keyes. He was recruited to join the subversive organization being run by Mrs. Pruneface, mostly through his involvement with fellow conspirator Black Pearl. 88 took advantage of the rift that had developed between Tess Trueheart and Dick Tracy, and he attempted to gain her affections.
88 gained Tess' trust, which enabled him to abduct her, allowing Mrs. Pruneface to create a plaster cast of Tess' face to use as the basis for a mask. When Mrs. Pruneface instructed 88 to kill Tess and dispose of her body, 88 had a pang of conscience. He left Tess alive in a warehouse and phoned an anonymous tip to the police, saying where she could be found. He then fled. Tracy later stated that he imagined 88 in South America, playing piano in a bar somewhere. His actual fate is unknown.
Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive
88 Keyes was one of several villains shown in the back of a police van in issue #2 of the comic book miniseries Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive published by IDW. He was not shown to be part of the larger gang that Tracy apprehended. It was implied that he had been captured in a separate encounter with the police shortly before the destruction of the large gang's hideout.
- 88's name is derived from the number of keys on a standard piano. It was not established if this was his real name or an alias. However, since the current creative team has accepted the backstory of the Mole as provided in Dick Tracy Goes to War as canon, it is reasonable to assume that they may consider "Clarence" to be 88's real name (as was established in that novel).
- The Family Album & Mug Shot Files feature in the book The Complete Dick Tracy Vol. 25 depicts 88 Keyes' entire name in quotation marks, indicating that the preparers of the feature seem to believe that it was an alias. While "88" was presumably a nickname or stage name, there was never any indication in the strip that "Keyes" was not the man's actual last name. His Musician's Union card was shown to have the name "Eighty Eight Keyes" on it.
- 88 Keyes was one of the major characters from the 1990 feature film not to be made into an action figure by Playmates Toys.
- In the Midnite Mirror series, 88 Keyes is an apparently honest nightclub owner who is killed by "Trigger" Catchem for not paying "Boss" Tracy.
- 88 is mentioned by Junior in the Shaky storyline, before he and Tracy meet Snowflake Falls. Notably, his name is spelled as "88 Keys", like in the movie's opening credits.
- There is a professional actor named Irwin Keyes who appeared in the 1994 feature film The Flintstones as the character Joe Rockhead, where he was credited as "Irwin '88' Keyes". He was not been credited in this was for any of his other roles (including the sequel The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas). It is unclear if Mr. Keyes is a fan of the Dick Tracy comic strip or this character who shares his surname.