All Things Mysterious--Volume Four
Most of the readers of this blog, if such there be, will no doubt be familiar with the character of Charlie Chan, both from the novels and the films that have remained popular through the decades. But author Earl Derr Biggers only wrote six Charlie Chan novels: The House Without a Key, The Chinese Parrot, Charlie Chan Behind That Curtain, The Black Camel, Charlie Chan Carries On, and The Keeper of the Keys. His very first book, Seven Keys To Baldpate, was quite popular and established him as an author to watch. In fact it has been the basis for no fewer than seven films!
Starting in 1913 with his well-received debut, Biggers published four more novels, then took a welcome break and with his wife visited Hawaii in 1919 or 1920. While there, he pondered the notion of a Chinese character that would avoid the stereotype of the villainous Oriental, and began to flesh out his ideas in 1924. Eventually he came across a story about a Honolulu cop named Chang Apana; using Apana as the basis for the character of Chan, Biggers knew he had found the detective he was hoping for. (The two eventually met, and Biggers gave Apana an inscribed copy of one of the Chan books. How’d you like to have that in your collection?)
In the novels, the Chan character was somewhat more assertive than the soft-spoken gentleman in the films, but his tendency towards proverbs and his deductive powers are similar in both media. Often taken lightly and underestimated by law enforcement and suspects alike, Biggers’s creation shattered the tired stereotypes of Chinese characters as untrustworthy, inscrutable knaves. In reading the novels, it may be argued that some of the speech patterns and character descriptions are themselves stereotypical and insensitive, especially when employing the standards of today, but a good case could be made that Biggers is subtly mocking stereotypes by virtue of Chan’s unruffled professionalism.
Employing deft, evocative descriptions of Honolulu and San Francisco at a time when travel was much more difficult and much less affordable for the majority of Americans, Biggers’s Honolulu of the 1920s bears little or no resemblance to the city of today, but it does make the reader of the Chan novel long for a time machine! The reader is transported to the Islands, and immediately absorbed in the mystery, in which clues abound along with memorably drawn characters and a soupcon of gentle humor.
Today’s readers may find it interesting that, particularly in the first and fifth novels, Chan does not appear until later in the story. This is a tribute to Biggers’s writing and his confidence in his detective, who need not appear on every page, but who serves the story by coming in and out of the narrative as necessary. By the way, Chan’s wife, children, and other relatives are much more prevalent in the films than in the novels. But we do meet some of his brood in the fourth novel, The Black Camel, which also returns the detective to Honolulu.
For the collector:
The House Without a Key--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1925. Reprinted the same year by Grosset and Dunlap and P.F. Collier, and several times since. First paperback edition Pocket Books 1940. Chan investigates a murder in his native Honolulu. The basis for a 10-part serial in 1926 and a Warner Oland vehicle from 1933, now lost.
The Chinese Parrot--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1926. Reprinted the same year by Grosset & Dunlap and P.F. Collier, and several times since. First paperback edition 1942, additional printings 1943 and 1951. A millionaire disappears in the California desert. Filmed as a silent in 1927 and again with sound in 1934 as The Courage of Charlie Chan. Both films are now considered lost.
Behind That Curtain--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1928. Reprinted the same year by Grosset & Dunlap, Readers League, and Collier. First paperback edition Pocket Books 1942. A case spanning decades and continents ending up in San Francisco. Filmed by Fox Studios in 1929, in 1932 as Charlie Chan’s Chance, and in 1940 as Murder Over New York.
The Black Camel--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1929. Reprinted the same year by Grosset & Dunlap and Collier, and several times since. First paperback edition Pocket Books, 1941. An actress is murdered in her Waikiki beach house, and Chan is on the case! Filmed in 1931 with Warner Oland, who made sixteen films as Chan. Of the first five this is the only one that survives.
Charlie Chan Carries On--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1930. Reprinted the same year by Grosset & Dunlap and in 1939 by P.F. Collier. First paperback edition Pocket Books, 1942. Members of a tour group are being killed one by one and Chan takes over for a slain colleague. Filmed in 1931 by Fox Studios and the first film starring Warner Oland as Chan, now lost.
Keeper of the Keys--First edition published by Bobbs-Merrill, 1932. Reprinted the same year by Grosset & Dunlap and in 1940 and 1942 by Triangle Books. Chan investigates a murder at Lake Tahoe. The only one of the six Biggers Chan novels not to be filmed, although a stage version was produced. The final book in the series, as Biggers died shortly after publication.
Note: Most Bobbs-Merrill firsts will have either a ‘first edition’ notation or a bow-and-arrow logo on the copyright page. Here at Mysterious, we have all six of the Chan adventures in recent trade paperback editions, as well as some of Biggers’ work in vintage hardcover. Check with your friendly neighborhood antiquarian bookseller, including this one, if you are curious, but remember to be polite and if you can make a purchase, so much the better!
For more information about collecting works by Earl Derr Biggers, check out Otto's annotated bibliography and price guide, published by The Mysterious Bookshop.