The House Without a Key (1925)
He was very fat indeed. Yet he walked with the light
dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as
So enters Charlie Chan, crack detective of the Honolulu Police Force, in this his first appearance in print. While vacationing in Hawaii in 1919, Earl Derr Biggers read about a local Chinese detective named Chang Apana. Intrigued by the concept, he created Charlie Chan, one of the great fictional detectives in all of literature, and, thanks to the movies, one of the enduring cultural icons of the century. He is, of course, a stereotype, but it's hard to see how he would be objectionable. After all, he's a bright, witty, polite police officer and family man. If anything, I should be offended, the WASP descendants of the Hawaiian missionaries are caricatured as priggish and sanctimonious, but I got over it. It's all done in a spirit of fun and who's to say that the caricatures don't have something to them.
The real charm of the book lies in the portrayal of a Hawaii that is now long gone. The islands we see here were still pre-statehood, dominated by the Anglo aristocracy, but with a large and vital Asian community. (Reading this novel, it's easy to see why there was no effort made to inter Hawaii's Japanese population during WWII, as was done in the West Coast states. They were simply too great a percentage of the population to even consider such wholesale civil rights abuses.) And Honolulu was still very much a port city with all of the rowdiness that one would expect with the regular influx of young sailors.
At any rate, the mystery involves the murder of the black sheep of a blue blood family and all leads seem to point back towards the dubious circumstances surrounding his clipper ship days in the free booting South Pacific of the 1880's. "Helping" Chan solve the case are the dead man's spinster cousin and his straight laced banker nephew visiting from Boston. Good clean fun is had by all, including the reader.
-Charlie Chan Page
-Fu Manchu & Charlie Chan Web Page
-etext The Agony Column by Earl Derr Biggers
-The Case of Charlie Chan and the Oklahoma Lawyer (Johnnie R. Hynson)
-Behind the Scenes: Charlie Chan (American Movie Classics)
-Charlie Chan -- b. 1925 d. Never! (Mystery Net)
-The Realist School of Detective Fiction
-Changing Images of Asian Americans (Moon H. Jo and Daniel D. Mast International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, VoL 6, No.3, 1993)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd