Reading Challenges

June 16, 2011

Earl Derr Biggers' The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan)

My first introduction to the well-loved detective Charlie Chan came as a young child via my grandfather. He initiated me into the vintage world of noir mystery with scratchy VHS copies of the black and white films of the 1930s courtesy of our local library. My memories of the stories are fuzzy, but I still recall their cozy ambiance, perfect viewing for a rainy day.
When I learned that these mystery movies were recently remastered and released on DVD, I began to do a little sleuthing of my own. In total, Hollywood film studios made over 40 films between 1929 and 1949 featuring Charlie Chan, but it was on the printed page that the friendly gumshoe first debuted. 

Earl Derr Biggers published The House Without a Key in 1925 set against the backdrop of Hawaii, then a US territory (remember that Hawaii didn't became a state until 1959). The novel opens with the voyage of John Quincy Winterslip, an affluent young Bostonian en route for Honolulu where his uncle Dan lives. Before he arrives, however, the elder Winterslip is found murdered at home, a house where the door is never locked. Forced to quickly adapt to a new social and geographic climate, the uptight New Englander John Quincy dives into solving the mystery of his uncle's death while working alongside the Honolulu Police, among whom Charlie Chan is a respected investigator. In addition to solving the crime, the young protagonist is influenced by island culture and learns something about open-mindedness and being at peace with the unexpected along the way. 

Given the description above, you may have guessed that Charlie Chan is not a central figure in The House Without a Key. In fact, the famous detective doesn't even put in an appearance until the seventh chapter. Nevertheless, Chan's wit and charm shine, and after publication, Biggers was overwhelmed by the positive reader response elicited by Chan. In his follow-up novel, The Chinese Parrot, Charlie Chan is on the scene by chapter two and features more prominently. At the time, critics heralded Charlie Chan as "the greatest super-sleuth since Sherlock Holmes".

While I initially bought  The House Without a Key out of curiosity and a sense of nostalgia, the novel exceeded my expectations. I thought the book would read more like a vintage pulp (with no disrespect to pulp and its own merits), but was surprised to find a well-written story bursting with rich character descriptions and a real sense of place. It was fascinating to read American perceptions of Hawaii at the time and to gain a sense of its true melting pot nature during a strong wave of Asian immigration. 

I often hear arguments linking Charlie Chan to racism, and while the books are dated and not politically correct by today's standards, I would argue that Charlie Chan may be the first Chinese hero in American literature/cinema. He represents a respected member of his community, admired for his intelligence and cool clarity on the job. Recently NPR presented an interesting program entitled Giving Charlie Chan a Second Chance. This piece was featured following the publication of the 2010 book Charlie Chan  by Chinese-born author Yunte Huang. The full article and radio program are available HERE. In his book,  Huang considers both the stereotypes imbued in Charlie Chan's character, as well as as his positive traits:

As a detective, Charlie Chan should take his place in film history alongside sagacious gentlemen like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, and Lieutenant Columbo, yet his ethnic identity marks him as different. Charlie Chan is far from the emasculated Chinaman his critics have claimed he is. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the movies and novels would know that Chan can be as mentally brazen and combative as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. His courage matches that of his real-life original, Chang Apana, who, despite his diminutive height, walked dangerous beats carrying a coiled bullwhip and caught dozens of criminals singlehandedly without firing a shot.

But the core strength of Chan's character lies in his pseudo-Confucian, aphoristic wisdom. Unlike the Kung Fu movies, which showcase a Chinese penchant for ass-kicking and sword-brandishing, Chan reveals the Chinaman as a sage: a wise, calm, responsible, and commonsensical man who also happens to be a hilarious wisecracker.

For more information on the real-life figure that inspired Charlie Chan, visit this blog dedicated to information about Chang Apana, a legendary Honolulu detective, HERE.


  1. I like the Charlie Chan stories...although I haven't read very many yet. This one is sitting in my TBR piles.

    Great review! I've got you updated on the progress site.

  2. I've never heard of the Charlie Chan novels or seen any of the movies. This sounds interesting and your review is excellent.

  3. Thanks all, it was truly an enjoyable read!

  4. Wonderful review. Thanks for sharing. I am a new follower GFC. I look forward to reading more and would love a visit and perhaps follow back on my blog. Thanks. Donna

  5. Thanks so much Donna! I look forward to checking out your blog!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca. Hope you enjoy Charlie Chan! and welcome to the Cozy Mysteries challenge!


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