“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.
As 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 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.”
In 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.
I was pleasantly surprised that I found this first book very enjoyable.
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.
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.