Saturday, October 6, 2012

The House Without a Key: Earl Derr Biggers (RIP #5)

I recently read the first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key. I have seen many of the Charlie Chan films, and I have always enjoyed them, but I had not read any of the books. I was pleasantly surprised that I found this first book very enjoyable. My husband was the first to try them and he has enjoyed all of the Charlie Chan books that he has read (four of the six in the series).

The book has a complex plot that held my interest. A family originally from Boston, the Winterslips, has some members living in Hawaii. One of the wealthy Winterslips living in Hawaii is murdered. A younger member of the family, John Quincy Winterslip, has been sent to Boston to check up on his Aunt Minerva and persuade her to return to Boston. He arrives in Honolulu the day after the murder. He gets involved in the investigation and is determined to see it through to the end, before he returns to the mainland.

It turns out that the owner of a hotel is suspected of the murder. His daughter has recently returned to the islands and John Quincy is enchanted by her, and by his cousin Barbara (the daughter of the victim). Plus he has a fiancee back in Boston. This sub-plot of his various possible love interests is entertaining.

The Charlie Chan character has been controversial, especially in the movies. In the books, his speech is not perfect English but he is striving to speak English well. And he is never an object of ridicule. Charlie Chan does not show up until later in the book, and in some ways he seems to be in the background during the investigation. But it is clearly his intellect and detection that solves the crime.

Initially the Winterslips from Boston are shocked to see a Chinese detective in the police and are reluctant for the murder case to be assigned to him. The local residents who know Chan defend his capabilities and extol his virtues as an investigator.

I also enjoyed the picture this book gives us of Hawaii and Honolulu in the 1920's. This book is the second book I have read for the 50 State Mystery Challenge at Goodreads.

This post is my fifth for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII event. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery and suspense.

I would like to point out an interesting recent book: Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. My husband and son have both read this book and encouraged me to read it. I may wait until I have read more of the books, because it could spoil some of the stories for me.

In this review of the book by Huang at the Washington Post, Michael Dirda notes that "Huang does somehow neglect the most obvious aspect of the Chan books and movies: their status as mysteries, as minor works of art." Nevertheless, he also considers it a "terrifically enjoyable and informative book, one that should appeal to both students of racial history and to fans of one of cinema's greatest detectives."

This book also counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
New Author Challenge
1st in a Series Challenge
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge


Sarah said...

Interesting post Tracy. I too liked the charlie Chan films and I read a short story once which I though was excellent. You've definitely given me the idea of reading one of the books. I must try one of the classic crime challenges next year.

Gavin said...

Like Sarah, I enjoyed Charlie Chan films and would like to read one or two of the Biggers mysteries. I am going to check out the mystery challenges for next year!

sakura said...

I've heard a lot about Charlie Chan but have never read any of the books or seen the films even though I've been meaning to. Sounds very interesting!

Cath said...

Adding this to my list for Hawaii. Believe it or not I actually had an Aunt Minerva. LOL

TracyK said...

This is a perfect book for Hawaii, Cath. Strangely, most of the Charlie Chan series is not set in Hawaii. But I have enjoyed all of them, some more than others. That is funny, that you had an aunt name Minerva. The name is different but I like it.