Earl Derr Biggers Biggers, Earl Derr - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Earl Derr Biggers 1884-1933

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

Biggers was the creator of the Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan, a character he conceived as a positive example of Asian-Americans. During the 1920s, Chinese characters in American popular fiction were often portrayed as sinister and menacing, a notable example being Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu Manchu. In response, Biggers styled Chan to be a polite and reflective policeman of Chinese origin, an American citizen who is patriotic but still retains a spiritual connection to his birthplace. Although Biggers achieved early success as a playwright, he is best remembered for his series of six mystery novels featuring Chan. The many film, radio, and television adaptations of the Chan novels kept the character alive decades after Biggers's death.

Biographical Information

Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, on August 26, 1884. A graduate of Harvard University, he worked from 1908 to 1912 as a columnist and theater critic for the Boston Traveler. In 1912, Biggers married Eleanor Ladd, with whom he would later have one son. His first major work, the play If You 're Only Human, was produced in 1912 but failed to impress audiences. More successful was Biggers's first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, which was published in 1913; a popular mystery, it was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan, as well as for the screen as both a silent and sound film. Biggers wrote several more plays, two novels, and a number of short stories before penning the first Charlie Chan novel, The House Without a Key. Following the 1926 publication of the book, initially printed as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post (as were the five other Chan novels), Biggers moved from New York to California to work in the film industry and also to preserve his fragile health. The author saw five Hollywood films go into production based on his Chan novels, although none of them cast an Asian as the lead character. On April 5, 1933, Biggers died of heart failure in Pasadena, California.

Major Works

Biggers's best known novels feature Charlie Chan, although the detective plays only a minor role in the first of the six-novel series. While it has been suggested that Chan was modeled after two Honolulu police detectives, Chang Apana and Lee Fook, Biggers reportedly denied a direct correlation, stressing that using a Chinese policeman as a main character was a fresh idea for a mystery novel—Asians were usually cast as the villains. The first novel to prominently feature Chan was The Chinese Parrot (1926). This was followed by four more book-length mysteries, including Keeper of the Keys (1932), the last volume of the series. Through the Chan novels in particular, Biggers built an international following, with translations of his work appearing in a dozen languages. More than thirty films and a television series were produced utilizing the character, in addition to numerous radio plays and a newspaper comic strip.

Critical Reception

Some critics do not consider Biggers's Chan mysteries to be pure detective fiction but rather melodramas which involve crime and sleuthing. Set in exotic locales, these novels often depict secondary characters who fall in love; there are also glimpses of Chan's domestic life, his happy marriage and his loving, though at times trying, relationships with his children. While the film versions of Chan are responsible for much of the figure's enduring popularity through the 1970s, more recent popular culture studies have examined Chan's stereotypical attributes. The Chan books have been criticized for their depictions of unflattering cliches associated with Asian-Americans. There are commentators, however, who view Biggers's Chan mysteries as an attempt to balance a negative stereotype with a positive one. In this respect, Biggers is credited for creating a heroic Asian character with whom readers could form an empathic connection.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

If You 're Only Human (play) 1912

Seven Keys to Baldpate (novel) 1913

Love Insurance (novel) 1914

Inside the Lines (play) 1915

Inside the Lines [with Robert Welles Ritchie] (novel) 1915

The Agony Column (novel) 1916; also published as Second Floor Mystery, 1930

A Cure for Curables [adaptor, with Lawrence Whitman; from the story by Cora Harris] (play) 1918

See-Saw [with Louis A. Hirsch] (libretto) 1919

Three's a Crowd [adaptor with Christopher Morley; from the story "Kathleen" by Christopher Morley] (play) 1919

The House Without a Key (novel) 1925

The Chinese Parrot (novel) 1926

Fifty Candles (novel) 1926

Behind That Curtain (novel) 1928

The Black Camel (novel) 1929

Charlie Chan Carries On (novel) 1930

Keeper of the Keys (novel) 1932

Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories (short stories) 1933

Burns Mantle (essay date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Novelists and the Drama," in American Playwrights of Today, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1929, pp. 211-29.

[In the following excerpt, Mantle comments on Biggers's early stage career.]

Earl Derr Biggers figures that he is one of the luckier playwrights. He quit writing novels and plays and took to writing motion picture scenarios when both the quitting and the scenario market were at their peak.

It was his last summer in New York that cured Biggers. He had had some success with plays. He had written, as far back as 1912, a comedy called If You're Only Human which Rose Stahl wanted to buy but which her manager, Henry B. Harris, could not see. And when If You're Only Human was later produced in stock Mr. Biggers met George M. Cohan. As a result of that meeting George M. bought the dramatic rights to Mr. Biggers' novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, and nearly everybody knows of the success that followed that purchase. Cohan did the play, made a vast amount of money with it and entered upon his most productive phase as a serious dramatist.

Biggers had also written a war play, Inside the Lines, that went fairly well in New York. Later it was played for five hundred nights in London. Then he collaborated with William Hodge on a comedy, A Cure for Curables, which Hodge played for two years.

"There was...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Neil Ellman (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charlie Chan Carries on," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 10, No. 2, April, 1977, pp. 183-84.

[In the following essay, Ellman examines the various film characterizations of Charlie Chan and discusses the actors who have portrayed him over the years.]

Charlie Chan Carries On is the title of the fourth novel in the series of six Charlie Chan stories written by Earl Derr Biggers during the 1920s and early 1930s. The title has additional meaning, for the character of Charlie Chan has, indeed, carried on. His popularity has outlived the memory of his creator; his name is more a household word than are the names of many of the great detectives admired by...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)

Jon L. Breen (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Murder Number One," in The New Republic, Vol. 177, No. 3264, July 30, 1977, pp. 38-9.

[In the following essay, Breen studies the development of Charlie Chan as a leading character in the six novels by Biggers.]

With the exception of a couple of Dashiell Hammett characters, Sam Spade and Nick Charles, no character in detective fiction has become more famous on the basis of fewer official appearances than Earl Derr Biggers's Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan. The Honolulu policeman appeared in only six novels, beginning with The House Without a Key (1925), in which he is a comparatively minor character, and ending with The Keeper of the Keys (1932), by...

(The entire section is 1497 words.)

Otto Penzler (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charlie Chan," in The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crimefighters & Other Good Guys, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1977, pp. 43-50.

[In the following essay, Penzler provides a biography of the fictional detective Charlie Chan.]

Sinister orientals are not often used in adventure fiction today, but a half-century ago they were one of the favorite cliches of authors who needed genuinely frightening villains. The ultimate "Yellow Peril" was, of course, the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, but he had plenty of nasty company in the early years of the twentieth century immediately following the Boxer Rebellion and continuing right up to the Second World War....

(The entire section is 3237 words.)

Thomas Godfrey (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charlie Chan for Rent," in The Armchair Detective, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 359-64.

[In the following essay, Godfrey surveys the numerous films featuring Charlie Chan.]

As they went out, the third man stepped farther into the room, and Miss Minerva gave a little gasp of astonishment as she looked at him. In those warm islands, thin men were the rule, but here was a striking exception. He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting. As he passed Miss Minerva he bowed with a courtesy encountered...

(The entire section is 3108 words.)

Sandra M. Hawley (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Importance of Being Charlie Chan," in America Views China: American Images of China Then and Now, Jonathan Goldstein, Jerry Israel, Hilary Conroy, eds., Lehigh University Press, 1991, pp. 132-47.

[In the following essay, Hawley addresses Chinese stereotypes in American literature and how Biggers's character Charlie Chan figures into their history.]

In searching for the sources of American ideas about China and the Chinese, one of the important places to look is the mystery fiction of Earl Derr Biggers, starring Charlie Chan—detective extraordinaire, Honolulu resident, half-mocked, half-mocking descendant of Confucius.

Charlie Chan's...

(The entire section is 6009 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


The Nation 136, No. 3537 (19 April 1933): 431.

A brief obituary notice that remarks: "Perhaps unconsciously [Biggers] served the cause of international understanding—no slight service these days."


Haycraft, Howard. "VIII. America: 1918-1930 (The Golden Age)." In Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, pp. 159-80. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1941.

An overview of American detective fiction, with a short discussion of Biggers's Charlie Chan novels. Haycraft concludes that the Charlie Chan novels are "clean, humorous, unpretentious, more than a...

(The entire section is 120 words.)