Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The House Without a Key, Earl Derr Biggers

The House Without a Key, published in 1925, is the first novel by Biggers to feature Charlie Chan. I read the Kindle version.

I am interested in Yunte Hoang's book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendevous with American History but thought I should read some of the stories first. I was surprised to learn that Biggers only wrote six novels with Charlie Chan. My ignorance is forgivable when you find out that there have been over four dozen Charlie Chan movies (Wikipedia) which might lead one to conclude that there are more books..

Though now billed as a Charlie Chan novel, note that he isn't mentioned on the dust jacket of the 1925 edition (right).  Chan doesn't show up until nearly a quarter of the way through the story. Ah, but when he does ...

John Quincy Winterslip, of the Boston Winterslips, is on his way to Honolulu to retrieve his Aunt Minerva. The family back east fear that she has fallen under the sway of the semi-barbaric tropics which isn't at all proper. And proper certainly describes young John Quincy, a banker. Minerva is staying with her cousin, Dan Winterslip, the black sheep of the family. He has the "gypsy strain" which is even more cause for concern.

The story is about the temptations of John Quincy as he makes his way from Boston, to San Francisco, to Hawaii. The temptations begin in San Francisco when a relative offers him a position suggesting that it would be good for him to loosen up a bit. Later, he meets a beautiful and free-spirited young woman on the ferry. Her playful mocking prompts him to toss his silk top hat into the bay. A foreshadowing?

With John Quincy on the ship to Hawaii is his second cousin Barbara, Don Winterslips daughter and only child, and Don's lawyer, Harry Jennison. Barbara and Harry appear to be very close though Jennison is stiff and standoffish to Barbara's playfulness.

The ship arrives too late to disembark the passengers and they have one more night aboard ship. In the early morning hours before they pull into port, Dan is murdered by a knife to the chest.

Minerva decides that a Winterslip must participate in the investigation and nominates John Quincy though he is initially opposed. Oddly, the police do not have a problem with a civilian involved in the investigation. Enter Charlie Chan, "very fat ...His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting." He is also the best detective on the force. John Quincy finds himself attached to Chan, a circumstance Chan embraces.

The story now becomes more of a detective procedural with the collection and analysis of evidence, seeking to identify links between Dan and suspects. When John Quincy discovers that the daughter of the chief suspect is the same young woman he met on the ferry in San Francisco he finds his feelings in conflict with the case.

Throughout it all, John Qunicy continues to be seduced by the Hawaiian lifestyle. From the lush descriptions that pepper the story, Biggers must have loved Hawaii. Several characters express sorrow at the changes they see happening around them (remember this is 1925) believing that 80s, before Hawaii was annexed by the U.S., were the best times to be in Hawaii. What would they think to see Honolulu today? Someone remarks:
I knew Honolulu in the glamourous days of its isolation, and I've watched it fade into an eighth carbon copy of Babbittville, U.S.A.
Charlie Chan was a late addition to the story. Biggers added him after reading about  Chang Apana and Lee Fook tow Honolulu chinese-American detectives. As a type, he has had mixed reception. Some see him as perpetuating stereotypes with hi bad grammer and subservient behavior. Others note that he is portrayed positively compared to other depictions of Chinese at the time. (Wikipedia). He might seem overly obsequious but he doesn't brook any nonsense. To Minerva he says:
Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us."
I don't entirely agree about the charge of bad grammer. Chan does have elaborate and ornate speech patterns but in the story we learn that he perfects his English reading poetry. I also wouldn't put it past him to put on a show to disarm people he is questioning.

As far as Chan's methods, he has a little of The Great Detective:
Begging most humble pardon, he said, that are wrong attitude completely. Detective business made up of unsignificant trifles. One after other our clues go burst in our countenance. Wise to pursue matter of Mr. Saladine.
But more like Father Brown Chan also says:
Finger-prints and other mechanics good in books, in real life not so much so. My experience tell me to think deep about human people. Human passions. Back of murder what, always? Hate, revenge, need to make silent the slain one. Greed for money, maybe. Study human people at all times.
The House Without a Key is a fun, uncomplicated, witty read. You should be able to figure out who did it and who will end up with whom easily but I don't think a complicated mystery was the aim. Biggers writes lovingly about Hawaii enjoys poking fun at starchy uptight Easterners, but not maliciously. John Quincy reads a comment left in a guest book that might be a valuable clue with an amusing reaction:
"in Hawaii all things are perfect , none more so than the hospitality I have enjoyed in this house ..."
John Quincy turned away, shocked. No wonder that page had been ripped out! Evidently Mr. Gleason had not enjoyed the privilege of studying A. S. Hill's book on the principles of rhetoric. How could one thing be more perfect than another.
I look forward to reading the next book, The Chinese Parrot, when Chan has the main role. Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Kindle so it is off to Book Depository or Abe Books or Alibris I go.