The House Without a Key (1925) by Earl Derr Biggers

The House without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Twenty-five years of my life are consumed in Hawaii, and I have many times been witness when the impossible roused itself and occurred.”

There have always been two kinds of Winterslips: the proper Bostonian branch of the family, and those who wander the world in search of adventure. John Quincy Winterslip is the first kind, unwillingly dispatched to bring home his aunt Minerva, one of those other Winterslips. Almost a year ago she traveled to Hawaii to visit cousins Dan and Amos, and still has not returned.

The two brothers have been estranged for thirty years, never crossing the fence that divides their property. That would be scandal enough. As soon as John Quincy lands in Honolulu, however, he learns that Dan has been killed. A Winterslip murdered? It just isn’t done. As he helps police detective Charlie Chan gather evidence, John Quincy finds himself far outside of his comfort zone, and liking it. But he soon learns that Hawaii is as dangerous as it is seductive, and “away down underneath there are deep dark waters flowing still.”

The House without a Key is a slight yet engaging mystery full of fascinating details about Hawaii in the 1920s. Yet its real claim to fame is that it marks the debut of iconic Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan. In his first outing, Chan is a supporting character who steals the show.

The House without a Key by Earl Derr BiggersAs the title suggests, Dan Winterslip’s murder is actually the opposite of a locked-room mystery. Nobody locks their doors in Honolulu, and Dan always sleeps on the open lanai. There are a few clues (a cigarette butt, a page torn from the guest book, a watch with a distinctive luminous dial). John Quincy gamely runs down one clue after another, meeting a wide range of Hawaiian society in the process. He is especially interested in Carlota Egan, who is trying to run a ramshackle hotel single-handed after her father Jim becomes a suspect in the murder. This is awkward, since John Quincy has an understanding with a girl back home. He also has some interesting encounters with his uncle Dan’s fiancée, a former chorus girl known as “the Widow of Waikiki.” Although there is much that the prim and proper New Englander can learn from the islands, his aunt Minerva worries that he may not be able to handle a different way of life.

This is an alien world you’re entering now. Not Boston, John Quincy, nor any other kind of old, civilized place. Not the kind of place where the mind rules. Out here it’s the heart that charts our course. People you’re fond of do the wildest, most unreasonable things, simply because their minds are sleeping and their hearts are beating fast. Just—just remember, please, John Quincy.

The most compelling aspect of the book is its portrait of Hawaiian life in the Roaring Twenties. Old-timers like Dan complain that modern technology has caused Hawaii to lose its unique charm, but it’s exactly this juxtaposition of old and new that is so exhilarating to John Quincy, the mix of native Hawaiian, American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. The laid-back island culture makes the murder investigation difficult, as does the occasional culture clash. When the white police captain tries to question a Chinese shop owner, he has no luck until Chan steps in. Unfortunately, the person they are looking for is Japanese, and the witness is unable to provide a description, “all Japanese faces being uninteresting outlook for him.”

The House without a Key by Earl Derr BiggersThe House Without a Key is more racially diverse than most other novels of the era due to its setting. The results are debatable, however. One does not get the impression that Biggers intends to portray nonwhite characters negatively, but they are usually relegated to the background as local color, and the prejudices of the time period are certainly present. Japanese characters are always referred to as “Japs.” Some of the native Hawaiian characters speak English fluently, but Chan’s son Henry (born in the United States) has a shaky grasp of the language. Charlie Chan himself has a distinctive manner of speaking that initially comes off as pidgin English, but is actually mostly grammatically correct aside from his habit of always speaking in the present tense. His vocabulary is impressive, and John Quincy even notes that Chan is a “serious student of English” who would never use slang.

Chan is obviously a valued member of the police force and a well-known local citizen. John Quincy and Minerva, initially appalled at the thought of a Chinese detective, are presented as the foreigners who need to adjust their ways of thinking. On the surface, Chan appears serene, but he can be ruthless when necessary.

Miss Minerva faced the Chinaman. “The person who did this must be apprehended,” she said firmly.

He looked at her sleepily. “What is to be, will be,” he replied in a high, sing-song voice.

“I know—that’s your Confucius,” she snapped. “But it’s a do-nothing doctrine, and I don’t approve of it.”

A faint smile flickered over the Chinaman’s face. “Do not fear,” he said. “The fates are busy, and man may do much to assist. I promise you there will be no do-nothing here.” He came closer. “Humbly asking pardon to mention it, I detect in your eyes slight flame of hostility. Quench it, if you will be so kind. Friendly cooperation are essential between us.”

The House without a Key by Earl Derr BiggersIn many ways, Charlie Chan resembles Hercule Poirot, another small man who uses his seemingly unmasculine “foreign-ness” to keep suspects off guard. The difference, of course, is that there are many Asian-Americans who did and still do struggle against stereotypes that the Chan character reinforces. The character of Charlie Chan seems to be intended as a respectful depiction, but it’s unfortunate that one of the earliest and most prominent Asian detectives plays into existing prejudices so neatly.

The House Without a Key incorporates a little bit of everything—mystery, comedy, romance, adventure—so a lot of interesting characters and situations are introduced without much follow-through. Still, it’s an entertaining hodgepodge that introduces a unique detective and will make you want to book a trip to Hawaii immediately.

Second Opinions

Bitter Tea and Mystery

I was pleasantly surprised that I found this first book very enjoyable.

Jill Lepore, “Chan the Man”

Longform New Yorker review of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang that examines the complicated history of Charlie Chan and his real-life inspiration, Honolulu detective Chang Apana.

Availability

The House Without a Key is available in paperback and ebook from Academy Chicago. This title is in the public domain in Canada and Australia.

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4 thoughts on “The House Without a Key (1925) by Earl Derr Biggers

  1. Yeah it was the anticipation of ropy racial depictions, which has put me off trying the Charlie Chan novels. It will be interesting to see how you find The Chinese Chop and how you feel it compares to this book. The other three novels in the Lily Wu series are all set in Hawaii, but the first is in New York.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had been avoiding these for the same reason, but aside from some quibbles described in the review, the minor Asian and Hawaiian characters were not portrayed badly for the era. Chan himself is a very striking character with more complexity than pop culture usually ascribes to him.

      Looking forward to Lily Wu. I will be starting The Chinese Chop soon, so review next week probably.

      Like

  2. I disagree with this assessment. I find absolutely nothing stereotypical or borderline racist in any of the Chan books. It bothers me so much that the post-modernists and the PC grandstanders insist that Charlie Chan inflamed racial stereotypes when none of them seem to have read the books. It’s the movies that often reveal Hollywood’s comic racial monkeyplay in the Chan series what with casting a Swedish American actor as Chan while the supporting Asian roles (almost always Chan’s children and a few murder suspects) are all played by real Asian actors.

    If you want to see how Biggers lampoons the idea of the backward Asian then read The Chinese Parrot in which Chan goes undercover as a “Ah Kim,” a cook who speaks pidgin English. But Chan is adamant that his role is a role and there are limits to his demeaning himself. In one of their many secret meetings Bob Eden, Chan’s detective colleague, asks Chan to deliver a message to Ah Kim’s boss. Knowing that he will have to use his comic servant pidgin speech Chan replies: “With your kind permission, I will alter that message slightly, losing the word very. In memory of old times, there remains little I would not do […] , but by the bones of my honorable ancestors I will not say ‘velly.’ ”

    You ought to read Huang’s book. He’s very fair about the books and the movies, placing fault where it lies and never over explains or overreacts. He also explains Biggers relationships with his Asian friends in great detail.

    What ought to be discussed more on the vintage mystery blogs is that the Chan books are underrated and fine examples of American fair play mysteries. The Black Camel and The Chinese Parrot are, IMO, the best of the lot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is a difficult issue, because, as you point out, the idea of “Charlie Chan” in American culture has a life of its own that has overshadowed the actual novels. As such, he carries a lot of baggage. Before reading the Huang book, it never even crossed my mind to read the Chan novels, because everyone knows Charlie Chan is racist, full stop. Huang showed that the reality is much more complicated and made me excited to try Biggers’ work.

      The House Without a Key is charming and I plan to read more of this series—your recommendations of The Chinese Parrot and The Black Camel are much appreciated! Although this one is not a pure detective story (there’s too much else going on), it is a very fairly clued mystery. Charlie Chan is a delightful character, who uses the preconceptions of others as a weapon, not a liability. It’s sad how revolutionary it was to simply show a Chinese character as a smart, capable professional living his own life. However, the book is still a product of its time. It is very much told from the sheltered perspective of John Quincy, who likes Chan but is frequently amused or weirded out to be interacting with a Chinese person (many references to slanted eyes and sing-song voices). There is lots of nostalgia for the “naive charm” of old Hawaii, before the simple natives were ruined by modern technology, yet the Hawaiian characters don’t have a voice of their own. Nonwhite characters other than Chan are used mainly as exotic background, which is a bit disappointing but still miles ahead of Sax Rohmer, etc.

      There are really two aspects of Chan that may come across as questionable to modern readers and were quite jarring to me at first. Since Chan has a large role, readers who don’t enjoy these traits are simply not going to like this book.

      1) Chan’s soft appearance and seemingly deferential manner. He is chubby, with a high voice; the text compares him to both a baby and a woman. His outward appearance allows him to surprise both the reader and the white characters who underestimate him. Everyone in this book is two-sided; all of their real selves turn out to be very different than the way they appear on the surface. So when he is described as appearing weak and sleepy, there are plot reasons for that. It’s so he can be revealed as much smarter and tougher than he looks. However, Asian men are often stereotyped as being passive and less masculine, and the physical description of Chan fits this trope.

      2) His distinctive manner of speaking, which at first glance seems close to stereotypical pidgin English. As stated in the review, though, the things Chan says are intelligent, his vocabulary is large, and it’s clear from the narrative that his speech is not used to mock him or make him sound stupid. Chan is an immigrant with an imperfect, but impressive, grasp of English. It took a while for this to sink in for me, because speech of this sort is typically used for comic effect (and his comments are often funny)—I was initially put off by the exaggerated nature of his speaking style, and I imagine others may have the same reaction.

      Though these qualities eventually make sense in the context of the book, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the character is meant to subvert the cliches or conform to them. John Quincy’s viewpoint doesn’t always do Chan a lot of favors. It sounds like Biggers goes further in overtly pushing against these stereotypes in The Chinese Parrot, and I look forward to reading it.

      Like

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