NOVEL: The House Without a Key
AUTHOR: Earl Derr Biggers
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1925
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.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 Whistles
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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