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.
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.
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.
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.