When Earl Derr Biggers wrote his first Charlie Chan novel, he had already been practicing his craft for a number of years. He had developed a smooth and readable colloquial style in the four novels and numerous short stories he had already published. In the several plays he had written or collaborated on, he had developed a knack for writing dialogue. Thus, he was at the peak of his literary powers in 1925, when Chan first burst into print in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. All of his preceding novels had some characteristics of the mystery in them, but they would best be described as romantic melodramas rather than crime novels.
The Chan novels, particularly the earlier ones, are invested with the spirit of high romance and appeal to the natural human desire to escape the humdrum of everyday existence. Thus Biggers chooses exotic and picturesque settings for them: a Honolulu of narrow streets and dark alleys, of small cottages clinging to the slopes of Punchbowl Hill, and a Waikiki that in the 1920’s was still dominated by Diamond Head, not by high-rise hotels. He makes abundant use of moonlight on the surf, of palm trees swaying in the breeze, and of aromatic blooms scenting the subtropical evening. The streets are peopled with “quaint” Asians and the occasional native Hawaiian; the hotel lobbies house the white flotsam and jetsam of the South Seas in tired linens.
The reader is introduced to the speech of the Hawaiian residents, peppered with Hawaiian words such as aloha, pau, and malihini. Then, a part of this romantic picture, and at the same time contrasting with it, there is the rotund and humdrum figure of the small Chinese detective. In three of the novels Chan is on the mainland, seen against the fog swirling around a penthouse in San Francisco, in the infinite expanse of the California desert, and on the snow-clad banks of Lake Tahoe.
There is also a strong element of nostalgia in Biggers’s works. One is reminded, for example, of the good old days of the Hawaiian monarchy, when Kalakaua reigned from the throne room of Iolani Palace. Also, in San Francisco the loss of certain infamous saloons of the old Tenderloin is deplored, and in the desert the reader encounters the last vestiges of the once-prosperous mining boom in a down-at-heel cow town and an abandoned mine. Biggers delights in contrasting the wonders of nature with those of modern civilization, such as the radio and the long-distance telephone.
Parallel to the mystery plot, each novel features a love story between two of the central characters. The young man involved often feels the spirit of adventure in conflict with his prosaic way of life. This conflict is embodied in the person of John Quincy Winterslip of The House Without a Key, a blue-blooded Boston businessman who succumbs to the spell of the tropics and to the charms of an impoverished girl who resides in Waikiki. It is also present in Bob Eden of The Chinese Parrot (1926), the wastrel son of a rich jeweler who finds that there are attractions to be found in the desert and in connubial bliss that are not present in the bistros of San Francisco.
The heroines of these romances are usually proud and independent liberated women, concerned about their careers: Paula Wendell, of The Chinese Parrot, searches the desert for sites for motion pictures, while June Morrow, of Behind That Curtain (1928), is an assistant district attorney in San Francisco. They are torn between their careers and marriage and deplore the traditional feminine weaknesses. “I don’t belong to a fainting generation,” says Pamela Potter in Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), “I’m no weakling.” Leslie Beaton of Keeper of the Keys (1932) had “cared for a spineless, artistic brother; she had learned, meanwhile, to take care of herself.” Chan makes no secret of his belief that a woman’s place is in the home. In fact, although he seems to admire all these liberated women, at one point he remarks, “Women were not invented for heavy thinking.” Still, as the reader learns in Charlie Chan Carries On, he sends his daughter Rose to college on the mainland.
The House Without a Key
The first two novels are narrated mainly from the perspective of the other characters, rather than from that of Charlie Chan. That enables the author to present him as a quaint and unusual person. When he first comes on the scene in The House Without a Key, Biggers provides a full description: “He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.” When Minerva Winterslip, a Bostonian single woman, first sets eyes on him, she gasps because he is a detective. In popular American literature of the 1920’s, Chinese were depicted in the main either as cooks and laundrymen or sinister characters lurking in opium dens. Biggers consciously chose a Chinese detective for the novelty of it, perhaps inspired by his reading about a real-life...
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