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The House Without a Key: A Charlie Chan Mystery (Charlie Chan Mysteries) Paperback – October 1, 2008
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The background on Charlie Chan is that the character was based on a news story read by Biggers while he was visiting in Hawaii. The real Charlie Chan was a Hawaiian police officer Chang Apana. Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
Biggers would write a total of six novels and many of dozen movies would be inspired.
The staid Bostonian John Quint D Winterslip is dispatched to Hawaii, by his wealthy family to retrieve Aunt Minerva, one of the wandering Winterslips. He arrives on the islands just in time for the murder of another wanderer his Uncle Dan. An oddly cooperative Hawaii Police Department agrees that this matter should be handled with a minimum of publicity and maximum access to the investigation by young John as the representative of the family's interests. Almost halfway into this book we finally meet Charlie Chan.
Chan is a respected detective on the department and gradually we come to appreciate his detective skills. In fact, the very well-to-do Winterslips will disparage Charlie, in part on racial grounds and in part out of disrespect for the police in general. It is telling that Biggers will ensure that anyone who disrespects Charlie Chan will either regret that disrespect or recant it.
Given that the contemporary view of Charlie Chan is that he represented a negative stereotype of the Chinese it is clear he was no such thing to Earl Biggers.
Part of the charm of this detective story is that it is all pre-technology. Automobiles and land line telephones are nearly the upper limit of personal and forensic equipment. Hawaii itself is another part of the charm of this book. We can appreciate the islands because Biggers does a good job of making it real.
Charlie Chan is not a dark cynical Continental Op in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett or any of 100 film noir detectives. He is a law man with no ax to grind. He has a loving relationship with his family. What makes him a superior detective is willingness to plod through the evidence and blind alleys that are the normal parts of any investigation. The result is that this novel functions without the gadgetry and computerized deus ex machina that is the minimum in the modern whodunit.
For the rest, the plot of this book moves smoothly. The various twists and turns of the plot proceed in the kind of languid way best fitting to a languid Hawaii. Not merely a languid Hawaii but one so peaceful that a rich man living on waterfront property need not have a house key.
The resulting book is rather like comfort food for the brain. There is no great challenge here, just a pleasant way to spend a few hours with a classic detective story.
The story centers around young and very proper John Quincy Winterslip of Boston, who has been sent to retrieve the elder Minerva Winterslip from the semi-barbaric Pacific Islands of Hawaii. When his ship stops in San Francisco on its journey to the islands, however, John Quincy's idea of who he is begins to change, and the possibility that there is a world outside of Boston and Beacon Hill begins to take shape. A mysterious errand in the city by the bay for the black sheep of the family, Dan Winterslip, also living in Hawaii, will begin an adventure that will in the end make him a man.
The murder of Dan Winterslip shortly before John's arrival will reveal old family secrets from a time when Hawaii was wild and dangerous, and a port for all the world. John Quincy does not understand the nostalgia Minerva and others feel for this time in Hawaii's history. But there is romance in those trade winds blowing the cocoa palms. John will meet Carlota Egan, a girl who could not be further away from the fiancee awaiting him back in Boston. But as John Quincy begins to help his lovely cousin Barbara and Minerva get to the bottom of Dan's murder, Boston seems like a distant memory.
Luckily for John, Hawaii's best police detective will help him unravel the clues that will lead to an exciting revelation, and in the process become his friend. That detective is Charlie Chan. An Asian who has been in Hawaii many years, Chan navigates the mystery with little to go on, but with much wisdom and humor. The Charlie Chan of The House Without a Key is subtle and endearing. Chan may be Chinese, but his very American take on a piece of pie he is not happy with is a hoot!
Biggers truly makes both his characters and the islands of Hawaii come alive in his first novel in which Charlie Chan appeared. His descriptions of Hawaii as seen through the eyes of the characters are nostalgic and filled with beauty. The House Without a Key is that rare novel which can be read with pleasure by both those who love a good mystery, and those who love a light and atmospheric romance. If both are your cup of tea, this great classic is definitely for you. It is a great read during summer, when things are bright and cheery, or during winter, when you want to escape.
I bought this particular edition for my wife and a friend, and it is very nice. You can't miss with this one. Make yourself one of those drinks with an umbrella in it, or just grab your oversized Hawaiin luau shirt and head on out to the lanai for a grand time between the covers of this mystery classic.
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