Biggers & Chan

A mystery that may never be solved to my satisfaction is this—why does Hollywood seem determined to take a wonderful book and rewrite it? And, seldom for the better. And then, to add insult to injury, the public welcomes the poorer version with such acclaim that the original is lost to remain hidden on a dusty shelf in a used book store.

Such is the tale of that illustrious detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police, brought to life by Earl Derr Biggers.

Biggers was born in 1884 in Ohio, graduated from Harvard in 1907. He worked as a journalist following graduation and was the drama critic for the Boston Traveler. His reviews were too blunt (a lesson for all who review) and he was fired in 1912. The following year he wrote Seven Keys for Baldpate which was immediately successful.  Seven different films were made of the book over the years, plus two others which told the same story but were given different titles.

Other books followed and then he decided to write a mystery.  The House Without a Key was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post beginning January 24, 1924. His second Charlie Chan book was bought by the Post for $25,000. In total he wrote only six Charlie Chan novels, but thanks to Hollywood writers Charlie has appeared in over four dozen movies.  He has also appeared in numerous pastiches, comic books and even a board game. Biggers stated on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his graduation from Harvard University in 1932, “I am quite sure that I never intended to travel the road of the mystery writer.  Nor did I deliberately choose to have in the seat at my side, his life forever entangled with mine, a bland and moon-faced Chinese.  Yet here I am, and with me Charlie Chan.  Thank heaven he is amiable, philosophical–a good companion.  For I know now that he and I must travel the rest of the journey together.” Biggers died a year later of a heart attack. He was 48.

Thoughts

With the exception of science fiction, novels try to portray the attitudes and culture of the time they were written, or the time they portray. But our perception of how that time is portrayed evolves with time as well. When Biggers set out to write the Chan mysteries, it was the time of the “Yellow Peril” where Chinese were portrayed as a danger to the Western world. He developed a Chinese detective whose characteristics were intelligence, honor, and heroism. Plus, he was a loving family man. (In the first book Charlie has nine children, eventually he has a total of eleven. His Number One Son does not participate in the cases as portrayed in the movies and television series.) As a result the Chan books were widely popular in China, where people were pleased to see a Chinese character portrayed in such a positive light. But the wheel of political correctness continued to turn to the other extreme and much later people judged Chan harshly, feeling his portrayal was condescending. (You just can’t please everyone.)

In the books Charlie speaks English well, only using a Pidgin English when “undercover” such as in The Chinese Parrot.  He comments to his companion, “All my life,” he complained, “I study to speak fine English words. Now I must strangle all such in my throat, lest suspicion rouse up. Not a happy situation for me.” When he is accused by a young woman of having a “do-nothing” “Confucius attitude” he stands up for himself. In fact, none of his wise comments are ever attributed, in the books, to Confucius as is the case in the movies.

The relationship between the Chinese and Japanese, which at this time was not cordial, is also alluded to (rather bluntly) in The House Without a Key. “The proprietor, a suave little Jap, came gliding. He bowed from the waist. “Is it that you serve here insanitary food?’ inquired Chan. ‘Please deign to state your complaint,’ said the Jap. ‘This piece of pie are covered with finger marks,’ rebuked Chan. ‘The sight are most disgusting. Kindly remove it and bring me a more hygienic sector.’ The Jap picked up the offending pastry and carried it away. ‘Japanese,’ remarked Chan, spreading his hands in an eloquent gesture.”

Charlie also deals with that very British idea that the upper class would never stoop to do something horrific. “But the man’s a gentleman.’ John Quincy cried. ‘A captain in the British Admiralty. What you suggest is impossible.’ Chan shook his head. ‘Impossible in Rear Bay at Boston,’ he said, ‘but here at moonly crossroads of Pacific, not so much so. Twenty-five years of my life are consumed in Hawaii, and I have many times been witness when the impossible roused itself and occurred.’”

The Chan Stories

The Chan mysteries are such a delightful respite from the immediacy and in-your-face drama of the modern mystery where the opening paragraph has to grab you by the throat and haul you into the book with ferociousness. They roll with the waves of the Pacific lapping on the shore. The beginning of the first books shows us Hawaii. “It was the hour at which she liked Waikiki best, the hour just preceding dinner and the quick tropic darkness. The shadows cast by the tall coco-nut palms lengthened and deepened; the light of the falling sun flamed on Diamond Head and tinted with gold the rollers sweeping in from the coral reef. A few late swimmers, reluctant to depart, dotted those waters whose touch is like the caress of a lover.”

Not all the books take place in Hawaii, however. Charlie comes to the mainland in The Chinese Parrot, Behind That Curtain, and Scotland Yard in England has the first twelve chapters of Charlie Chan Carries On.

In fact, in the first book we learn how these stories will move along. John Quincy speaks to a fellow mainlander who has been on the island for some time. ‘”I don’t see how anyone can work in this climate,’ John Quincy said. ‘Oh, well, we take it easy…Every now and then some go-getter from the States comes out here and tries to hustle us.’ He laughed. ‘He dies of disgust and we bury him in a leisurely way. Been down to breakfast?”  In sharp contrast to our present day mysteries the body may not show up for several chapters.

Charlie’s method of detection relies only a little on the scientific. He does believe in fingerprints even though he says, “Fingerprints and other mechanics good in books, in real life not so much so. My experience tells 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.”

Another noticeable difference in the Cham mysteries from today’s crime fiction is that although Charlie is most assuredly the star, he mostly appears as a background character. Charlie is the one who patiently waits for the clues, which always come to him, and who solves the case. Every character in each story is completely fashioned out of whole cloth, be he the steward on a ship or a rich business man.

I recommend taking the time to read the six Chan novels. I also firmly believe that you will become so enamored of Biggers writing that you’ll move on to his non-Chan books, a couple of them have tremendously wonderful twists at the end.

The Chan books in order are: The House Without a Key, The Chinese Parrot, Behind That Curtain, The Black Camel, Charlie Chan Carries On and The Keeper of the Keys, the only Chan book not to become a movie. It was, however a stage play. Give these non-Chan books a try: The Agony Column in which a young man courts a young lady through the personals (known as the agony column) and tells a tale of murder. This is one with a great twist. The Ebony Stick which is a story of a con job gone wrong, then right, then wrong, and finally with a twist, right. It involves love, of course. “…they’re to be married in Florence. Ain’t that a sissy name for a town?Love Insurance which is a comedy of errors, false identities, stolen jewels love and marriage. Fifty Candles, and my least favorite, but the one that started it all – Seven Keys to Baldpate.

Where Have I Been?

It seems as if I fell off the planet. I took an unexpected break from my blog. I’ve been writing a mystery – two, in fact. (Not yet published) A health issue and two accidents had me focused on other things..

WordPress has gone through some changes while I was away, so please bear with me. It may take some time before I figure out how to do things I used to know how to do.

I’m trying to get back in the habit of posting and will start off with my latest contribution to the Sherlockian journal, Groans, Cries and Bleatings – The Mystery Corner. If you’d like to get a preview of my novels, the website is http://www.bakersomerset.com! Please come over and take a look.

The Mystery Corner

Fifth Column by Mike Hollow 

Inspector Jago is called out first thing in the morning because an unidentified body of a woman has been found in the ruins of a bombed out house. It’s 1940, England during the Blitz. The scene would make an onlooker believe she died during the bombing, but in fact, she was strangled. It’s an old-fashioned case of murder.

Detective Inspector Jago and his young Detective Constable Craddock are the cement of the book and the relationship between them was exceptionally well done. At one point, Craddock says of a witness ‘she hasn’t let herself go’. Jago responds, “You make it sound as though she’s some old dear about to kick the bucket. The poor woman can only be the same age as me, if that. You’ll be telling me next I’m looking a bit frail and ought to sit down.” “Oh no, sir, you’re still quite spritely.” “Spritely? You can’t tell a man who’s barely turned forty that he’s spritely. Sixty is spritely, not forty.” “Yes, sir. My mistake.”

Rita is another great character. She works at the cafe where Jago takes Dorothy and Craddock. Rita’s opinion of government efficiency is perfect. – “She led them to a table for four near what had once been the front window. “Still patched up with plywood, I see,” said Jago. “Yes.” Said Rita. “Can’t see much point putting glass back in just so it can get blown out again by the next bomb. Did you hear what the Home Secretary said?” She turned to Dorothy with an understanding look. “He’s a bloke in the government,” she said. “Apparently he told the House of Commons that little strips of brown paper aren’t much good at protecting your windows if a bomb drops outside.” Rita continued, “Fancy that. Not just a pretty face, is he. Blinking genius.”

However, I found his characterization of Dorothy, Jago’s romantic interest, rather flat. She is supposed to be an American journalist but the purpose of her presence seems to be to allow commentary about philosophical war issues that don’t really have anything to do with the mystery itself. Her journalistic endeavors seem one-dimensional and to my way of thinking, Jago spends far too much time thinking about her, for a police procedural.

All the historical details put you into the scene. You put the book down feeling you were there. The book was published in England, and some of the references while understandable there, may be confusing to American readers. A tiny bit of editing for a US edition would have fixed that. For example, Hollow begins the book with a description of Jago waking up in his Anderson Shelter. You understand immediately that this was a bomb shelter outside the house. Other references are sometimes more difficult.

Geography is no longer taught using a big paper map hung on a roller high above the blackboard. (If it’s taught at all, and do classrooms still have blackboards?) So how many readers will understand this reference? “Empire Office Services sounds like they sail off in pith helmets with vital supplies of carbon paper and typewriter ribbons to every last dot on the map that’s coloured pink…” Everyone who watched the movie “Hope & Glory” understands it, but how many others? Back in the 40’s (and I don’t know for how long afterwards) the countries on a map were all coloured and ‘the pink bits’ all belonged to the Empire.

An odd reference, especially for those under the age of 40 or 50, might be when Craddock, referring to a woman who showed no emotion at the bad news they had brought, says “Maybe she’s just a goldfish.” Jogo turned to face Craddock with what he hoped was a patient expression and says, “Cold fish, Peter.” Craddock replies, “Sir?” And Jogo explains, “A cold fish is a person who doesn’t betray their emotions. A goldfish is what the rag and bone man gives you for your mum’s old clothes.” In fact, the rag and bone man would give kids a goldfish (the kind that swims), or a balloon, a wooden clothes peg, or something for bringing him items. And who was ‘The Umbrella Man’? It was the nickname of the British Prime Minister at the start of WWII, Neville Chamberlain.

It turns out the murdered woman worked in a factory that made items for the War Office where there has been a theft, so there is the threat that the murder could be war related. There are lies, personal hatreds, bigamy, blackmail, and a lot of other good stuff. In spite of its few glitches, Fifth Column, the second book in the Blitz Detective series, is an enjoyable mystery in a WWII setting. It stands alone well. You needn’t have read the first in the series to enjoy it.

Fiddler’s Green by Ernest K. Gann

“Fiddler’s Green…the imagined Elysian Field of sailors and vagabond craftsmen—where credit is good…where there’s many a lass and many a glass…and never a storm at sea.”

I’m not sure you would consider Fiddler’s Green a mystery. You certainly know who the culprit is because the book opens with Bruno Felkin running through the fog in San Francisco, trying to put distance between him and the man he just killed. The killing was stupidity mixed with an accident, but Bruno is a two-time loser and he knows the police won’t take his word for what went down. The question is, will the police catch him.

Bruno’s sure his girlfriend will give him an alibi, if he can just get to her place fast enough. His luck turns sour; she’s gone to the movies. Bruno keeps running, wondering where he can hide. He takes refuge in the hold of Hamil Linder’s fishing boat, tied up at the dock, and the next morning finds himself heading out to sea.

The timeless story revolves around what happens to Bruno while he’s at sea. It also revolves around the policeman, who is searching for Bruno. Gann is a true storyteller. Every word in this 1950 novel is to be savored. His characters are so real, the setting so true, you can see into the heart of it all. His tale is of Bruno, the fishermen in the fleet, a man and his son, a fierce storm raging at sea, and a cop named Kelsey.

In the Best Families by Rex Stout

Wolfe leave the brownstone? Unfathomable. But when Mrs. Rackham hires Wolfe to find out where he’s getting his money, and Mr. X. sets of a tear gas bomb in Fritz’s kitchen, that’s what happens. In fact, he goes in the dead of night leaving notes for Theodore, his orchard keeper, Fritz and Archie. The orchards are to go to a man on Long Island, who will keep Theodore on. Fritz is to work at Marko’s wonderful restaurant, and Archie is ordered, “Do not look for me.” Then, to top things off, a notice appears in the Gazette that Nero Wolfe has retired. Did I forget to mention – Mrs. Rackham winds up dead.

In my copy, there is an introduction written by Patricia Sprinkle. She says that she fell in love with Nero Wolfe as a child of ten when she read the stories to her ill father. Since she was a child, she didn’t take notice of the author’s name. What she did notice was that Nero Wolfe was fat, he drank beer (something not done in the Sprinkle household), he insulted people and got away with it, he was a picky eater, and he didn’t do anything he didn’t want to do? In her eyes, he was the perfect grown-up. Years later, she was reintroduced to Wolfe and found he hadn’t changed.

Next to Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe is probably the most enduring of detectives. In the Best Families has Wolfe taking on the one criminal whom he cannot risk losing to. Marko tells Archie that Wolfe left an instruction for him. He must “act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.” So it’s up to Archie to act. I think this is one of my favorite Wolfe books.

Shoot to Kill & Kiss the Dames – a fond look at hard-boiled detectives

The hard-boiled detective is America’s contribution to the mystery genre.  For a good hard-boiled detective story you need a sarcastic, licensed private eye, with a loyal secretary who often hasn’t been paid regularly due to lack of funds, a few gunshots, a dead body or two, at least one beautiful dame probably called ‘sweetheart’ and the gum-shoe getting fired from the case but sticking with it because of his/her own moral code. Get out your old books and enjoy!

 

Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer

Lew Archer goes mostly undescribed but in THE DOOMSTERS he is referred to as being 6’2″ with blue eyes. He drinks too much, is weary in his soul and thinks about his ex-wife a lot.

He did describe himself once:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself. I was a good Joe after all. Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all. The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile. All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer. The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms. If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.” (THE MOVING TARGET)

 

Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op

The Continental Op is unnamed but we do know he is short and fat. Tough as nails, he has no sentimentality and no sympathy. He is just trying to do his job in a very messed up world. The most feeling he shows was when he shot a woman: “I never shot a woman before. I felt queer about it.” (THE GUTTING OF GUFFIGNAL)

He was described thus in THE DAIN CURSE:

“You came in just now, and then I saw -”

She stopped.

“What?”

“A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same, without any human foolishness like love in him, and – What’s the matter? Have I said something I shouldn’t?”

 

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade:

Hammett described Spade: “…he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Spade was also good with the one-liners as these from THE MALTESE FALCON show:

Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation ready.
Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”

O’Shaughnessy: “I haven’t lived a good life. I’ve been bad, worse than you could know.”
Spade: “You know, that’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.”  

“Listen, Dundy, it’s been a long time since I burst into tears because a policeman didn’t like me.”

“Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be”

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Marlowe was great with the wise cracks, drank whisky, played chess, and didn’t have a secretary. He describes himself:

“There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade.” (THE BIG SLEEP)

“Okay, Marlowe,” I said between my teeth. “You’re a tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with your face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw. You can take it.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.” (FAREWELL, MY LOVELY)

Marlowe has reappeared in THE BLACK EYED BLONDE by Benjamin Black. Honest, you wouldn’t know that Chandler didn’t write it unless I told you, it’s that good.

 

Leigh Brackett’s Ed Clive

At a time when the field was dominated by male writers, Leigh Brackett, a science fiction writer of short stories, created a hard-boiled detective named Ed Clive in her first novel, NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE. The novel was so good that film director Howard Hawks told his people to “get that guy Brackett”. She wrote the screenplay for THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE among other big flicks.

Clive is a tough, tough-guy. He gets hit over the head so many times you wonder if he has a steel plate up there:

“Did it hurt much, getting hit like that?”

Clive laughed. “I hardly notice those things any more. You get hardened to it.

She studied his face intently. “I guess a detective has to be tough. Are you tough, Mr. Clive?”

“How do I look?”

“Tough. Awfully tough.”  (NO GOOD FROM A CORPSE)

 

 Loren Estleman’s Amos Walker

The things Walker doesn’t like would make a book – gun control, non-smokers, liberals, and feminists just to give you an idea. He’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in the side of the authorities. He’s the guy for whom the term “tough guy” was invented.

“If it weren’t for concussions I wouldn’t get any sleep at all.”
— Amos responds to a suggestion that he see a doctor after he’s slugged (again). (THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR)

 

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

Spillane never claimed to be a “good” writer. He wrote to sell books, and sell they did. His 13 Mike Hammer books sold over 225 million copies. Clad in the private eye’s traditional trench-coat with his hat brim pulled down low, Mike Hammer was a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, private detective who carried a .45 Colt.

He wasn’t interested in catching the killers. He figured the legal system would mess it up. He cared about justice and he was more than willing to shoot to kill a killer. In the first five books of the Hammer series, Hammer dispatches 34 dirty, low-down killers.

Hammer’s saving grace may be that two good people were his friends and cared about him, Velda, his secretary, and Pat Chambers, Homicide Captain of the NYPD.

Spillane describes him thus: “Imagine this guys hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic] and knocks him out. You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger [sic]; he’ll beat the crap out of you.”

There are some very modern lady detectives that are hard-boiled as well, and they are for another time.