Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The House Without a Key

by Pa Rock

Earl Derr Biggers was a Harvard graduate who became a journalist in the early years of the twentieth century.   His interest in writing eventually led him to a modest career as a novelist and playwright.   Biggers’ reputation as a writer, along with his body of work, would have eventually disappeared into the dusts of time if it was not for one of his character creations who caught the imagination of both the American reading public and Hollywood.  That character was the inscrutable Chinese detective, Charlie Chan.

The original Charlie Chan as created by Earl Derr Biggers was a very rotund Chinese gentleman who was employed as a detective with the Honolulu Police Department.  He spoke pigeon English, always had a pithy little quote ready to clarify a situation or emphasize some human foible, and he had a unique ability to sort through clues and determine which were germane to an investigation and which were not.  Mr. Chan was a highly skilled detective who was well respected by those he encountered on the job, and nothing at all like the sinister stereotypes of Chinese which were prevalent at that time.

In my never-ending quest to become conversant in low-brow literature of the twenties and thirties, I recently encountered the first Charlie Chan novel, The House Without a Key, which was written in 1925.  Earl Derr Biggers went on to write five more books featuring his famous detective before dying at the early age of forty-eight.   By the time of Mr. Biggers’ death, Charlie Chan had been showcased in several movies and had proven to be just as popular in Shanghai, China, as he was in America.  Charlie Chan was also on the radio and had appeared in American comic books.

Many critics felt that Charlie Chan was the most memorable fictional detective since Sherlock Holmes.

The House Without a Key surprised me with its clever plotting and beautiful writing.  Most of the story takes place in Honolulu of the 1920’s, and the lush descriptions of the city, and in particular the old hotels and mansions on Waikiki Beach, truly make the reader pine for a time that has long sense passed.  The Americanization of Hawaii was one of the themes of novel, with several of the characters reminiscing about the islands as they knew them in their youth – in the 1880’s – a time when the monarchy still ruled.  However, for those of us bound in present times, Hawaii in the 1920’s sounds like Heaven on Earth.

Biggers was very subtle in his introduction of Charlie Chan – in fact, the detective didn’t even appear until the seventh chapter.  The first six chapters were dedicated to describing Honolulu in the twenties, setting the stage with a murder, and carefully introducing each of the family members and other suspects.  Biggers’ character descriptions were so thorough that I was put in mind of the works of Dame Agatha Christie. 

The novel went well beyond the storyline of a murder and subsequent investigation.  It also talked of opium smuggling, blackbirding (essentially trading in slaves), and the struggles of a young Bostonian as he was torn between the rigidity of his New England background and the free and easy lifestyle of Hawaii.  And there was a luau, fights along the waterfront, and romantic moonlight swims in the warm Pacific Ocean.

The House Without a Key captured Hawaii as it was nearly ninety years ago, a beautiful place - and one that Earl Derr Biggers obviously knew well.  The cleverness of Charlie Chan was well complemented by the serene beauty of the city and the island that he called home.  

This was a wonderful read!

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