Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Adventure classics -- On the trail of Charlie Chan

Keeper of the Keys

by Earl Derr Biggers


He was an ex-paniolo -- a Hawaiian cowboy -- whose trademarks were a cowboy hat and a bullwhip, and he was as wiry as the whip. The only ethnic Chinese on Honolulu’s police force in the early twentieth century, his crime-busting abilities were legendary, although he never learned to read or write either English or Chinese. He had enough panache for Indiana Jones, but wasn’t until ex-newspaperman Earl Derr Biggers read a report of his activities in the New York Public Library that Chang Apana (sometimes written Ah Ping Chang) entered literary history.

Only he didn’t look much like his fictional alter ego, Charlie Chan.

“He was very fat indeed,” Biggers describes Chan in the first of the mystery series. “His cheeks were as chubby as a baby's, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.” And to the horror of the stiff-necked lady who has just discovered the body of a murdered man in her house, “he’s Chinese!”

It was a horror shared by a large portion of the white population of the United States, where Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, excluding foreign-born “Asiatics” from citizenship the year before Chan's literary debut.

(The act was bad news for Chang Apana, whose picture illustrates this post. He was born in Hawaii, but before it became a U.S. territory.)

Perhaps wondering whether a Chinese detective could win over prejudiced readers, Biggers waited until chapter seven of his first book, The House Without a Key, to introduce Chan. Despite the reading public -- and soon, movie-going public -- taking the astute little detective to their hearts, it wasn’t until the sixth book of the series, the Keeper of the Keys of today’s discussion, that Biggers felt comfortable enough to let Chan star on the first page of a novel.

Far more in the books than in the movies of Chan, Biggers didn't sugarcoat the racism the fictional detective and his real life counterparts had to confront.

By the time Keeper of the Keys appeared in 1932, Chan is greeted in the novel by admiring fans both white and Chinese and has toned down his famous (or famously annoying) aphorisms. Still, white characters have no qualms about making racial slurs to his face or exploiting his reputation to hide their own misdeeds. Even the old Chinese servant whose name, Ah Sing, mirrors Chang Apana’s given name, despises Chan as a man suspended between two cultures.

With this kind of opposition, and plunked down in the exotic -- to him -- setting of California’s Lake Tahoe, Keeper of the Keys taxes all Chan's powers of observation and deduction before the killer of charismatic opera diva Ellen Landini is unmasked. Is it the diva's estranged husband?  One of her three ex-husbands?  Or the houseful of assorted lovers and jealous relations all gathered on that fateful snowy night? And will finding the killer cause even more harm than the diva’s death?

The story made me wonder how far Chan might have gone in the next book in the series. But there was not to be another. In 1933, at age forty-eight, Biggers, who modeled Chan’s figure after his own obese physique, died of a heart attack. 

Chan would continue to activate audiences in movies and on television for decades.  But it would be left to Chinese-American professor Yunte Huang to track down the mystery of Chan’s antecedents in Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History.

Huan's book is, of course, available on Amazon.  Glimpse it at "Chan, the Man,”

Still hungry for Chan fan fun?  Try

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics closes an April of mystery with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.)

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