Charlie_Chan_Feature

On Our Bookshelves:
The House Without a Key

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NOVEL: The House Without a Key

AUTHOR: Earl Derr Biggers

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1925

REVIEW:

It has been said (and attributed to John Gardner, Leo Tolstoy, and various others) that there are really only two stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. I think that claim is perhaps a wee bit over-simplified, but in any event, this novel is in the first category. A proper and rather straitlaced young man of the Boston Brahmin type is dispatched to Hawaii, via San Francisco, on an errand: he is to retrieve his aunt (who has been on an extended vacation there visiting a rather disreputable relative). All does not go quite as planned, as the young John Quincy Winterslip (who considers himself quite sensible and intends a short trip, a return to his family-approved fiancee, and a quick resumption of his investment business) quickly finds himself, instead, getting in fights, investigating a murder plot, uncovering some rather unsavory facts about his uncle’s past, escaping a kidnapping attempt, becoming rather captivated by Hawaii (and more particularly, of a beautiful young local woman), and generally having the adventure of his life.

It’s great fun, and it’s an amazing look back. The older characters are nostalgic for the 1880s, before Honolulu became such a cosmopolitan and busy place, but for us in the 21st century, 1920s Honolulu seems exotic, fascinating, and otherworldly. As Biggers points out, Honolulu proves Kipling wrong, because it is where East can meet West. It’s a charming read, and it is also the introduction to a character that has since become very well known: the Chinese detective, Charlie Chan.

Charlie Chan? He has a bad reputation these days, due, no doubt, to the movies featuring the character, which had white actors playing the role in “yellowface” and which have been roundly criticized for reinforcing condescending and offensive stereotypes.

This novel, however, is astonishingly progressive for its time. Biggers was inspired to add a Chinese policeman to the novel he’d been planning when he read about a detective on the Honolulu police force, Chang Apana, famous for his successes in opium smuggling and illegal gambling cases, his fluency in several languages, his habit of carrying a bullwhip, and his colorful exploits on the job. Finding the “yellow peril” stereotypes that he encountered in California offensive, Biggers deliberately created a character very different: amiable, on the side of law and order, gracious, extremely loyal, and patient. As the character proved popular in The House Without a Key, Charlie Chan was given a more prominent role in the subsequent five novels in the series. In the second novel, The Chinese Parrot, Chan goes undercover as an ignorant Chinese cook, quite successfully, but resents very much faking his accent and speech patterns (going so far as to refuse to say the word “very” because he’d be obliged to pronounce it as “velly”). He is generally underestimated by the white people he encounters, and consistently surprises them with his intelligence and hard work.

Give it a chance and you will likely be pleasantly surprised by this mix of mystery, romance, and humor. Read it on the beach if you can, and if you can’t, imagine yourself there, with an ocean breeze, a tropical sunset, and a delicious cold drink.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Gowanus Waters, Steven Hirsch

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Lexicon, Max Barry

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Plotted: A Literary Atlas, Andrew DeGraff

Possession, A.S. Byatt

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rose Madder, Stephen King

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Modern Kids, Jona Frank

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

They Call Me Naughty Lola, David Rose

What If?, Randall Munroe

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Chicago Review Press