Wednesday, October 23, 2013

August reading

50. The Black Camel - book 4 in the Charlie Chan series
by Earl Derr Biggers
mystery, 1929
Kindle book
finished 8/31/13

49. Behind That Curtain - book 3 in the Charlie Chan series
by Earl Derr Biggers
mystery, 1928
Kindle book
finished 8/25/13

48. Up, Back, and Away
by K. Velk
fiction, 2013

finished 8/18/13

47. The Chinese Parrot - book 2 in the Charlie Chan series
by Earl Derr Biggers
mystery, 1926
Kindle book
finished 8/17/13

46. The House Without a Key - book 1 in the Charlie Chan series
by Earl Derr Biggers
mystery, 1925
Kindle book
finished 8/11/13

45. Remembering the Bones
by Frances Itani
fiction, 2007
library book
finished 8/8/13

44. The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree - book 4 in the Hildegarde Withers series
by Stuart Palmer
mystery, 1933
Kindle book
finished 8/4/13

This month I fell in love with both Charlie Chan and the series in which he stars. For years I've had this sense that the books were racist, but having read them I don't believe it is so. When racism rears its ugly head, Charlie is right there to confront it. In an instance in The Black Camel when someone criticizes a Chinese cook for having “all the worst qualities of a heathen race,” Charlie responds
“A heathen race,” repeated Charlie gravely, “that was busy inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were still beating one another over head with spiked clubs.”
I find it quite remarkable that Earl Derr Biggers, in the 1920s, chose to have a Chinese main character, whom he presented as a man who was greatly admired. Everyone who works with Charlie comes away believing he is a genius at his job of detection. I’ve spent a fair bit of time wincing over displays of racism in early detective fiction. Even Hercule Poirot was often belittled for being foreign. In fact, ‘foreign’ is a much used derogatory adjective in many of those old books. I think Biggers did a great service in educating his readers, whom I imagine in those early days were predominantly (only?) white, without much knowledge of the Chinese people. Those readers learned a great deal about their virtues and culture through Charlie’s occasional pronouncements, and the way he lives his life.

Perhaps from watching the old movies, we are familiar with Charlie's speech patterns, but I found in the books that he makes only the grammatical mistakes we all make when learning a new language. As the books go on, he speaks less and less that way, just as one would as he gets more proficient in the language.

Charlie Chan’s home is Hawaii, and for me the only sadness with the series is that he doesn’t spend every book there with his wife and children on Punchbowl Hill. The reason is that not much crime happens in 1920s Hawaii! The House Without a Key is set there; and then he travels to the desert of California in The Chinese Parrot, San Francisco in Behind That Curtain, and comes back home for The Black Camel. On his first literary appearance, he says of himself, 
“I am kamaaina - old timer. I have been twenty-five years in the Islands.”
In each of the Hawaii books Biggers writes of it as a paradise. 
… one great gorgeous garden set in an amphitheater of mountains
 For this, after all, was the time she loved Waikiki best. So brief, this tropic dusk, so quick the coming of the soft alluring night. The carpet of the waters, apple-green by day, crimson and gold at sunset, was a deep purple now.
In that sheltered spot a brisk rain was falling, as is usually the case, though the sun was shining brightly. … “liquid sunshine” the people of Hawaii call such rain, and pay no attention to it. Half a dozen rainbows added to the beauty 
... he was conscious of the black velvet of a tropic night. He caught the odor of ginger blossoms and plumeria, a croton hedge gave way to one of hibiscus, topped with pale pink flowers.
 There is some irritation on the part of Hawaiians that
“Only about one person out of a thousand in this country [US] knows that Hawaii is a part of the United States, and the fact annoys us deeply over in the Islands.”
A note in my book said that 
Biggers had always been interested in mystery fiction, but his interest in Hawaii clearly stems from a 1919 vacation in Honolulu. While there, he read a newspaper article on a Chinese detective named Chang Apana. Apana would become the model for Charlie Chan.
After reading these first four Charlie Chan books, I bought a copy of the 2011 nonfiction book called Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang. I look forward to learning about this most interesting character.

I wrote in previous posts about the other three books read in August. If you wish, you may click titles to read the book reports.


  1. Earl Derr Biggers, what a wonderful writer! I have only heard of Charlie Chan from the movies. Now , I must read these books.
    Also, I would be very interested to read the non-fiction book that you have told us about too, that looks like my kind of reading.
    (Shame that Earl Derr Biggers died so young, and if George M. Cohan liked his books, then I know that I will!)

  2. You are the most interesting book reviewer in the world Nan ;>) I would never in the world have thought of reading the Charlie Chan novels. In fact, I've never even thought about the fact that they WERE novels and not just old movies! And now after reading your review, I can't imagine how I could have gotten to this age without knowing about them and reading them. They will join Hildegarde Withers on my list.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! There really is a wealth of great older books.

  3. “Only about one person out of a thousand in this country [US] knows that Hawaii is a part of the United States, and the fact annoys us deeply over in the Islands.”

    I bet people in modern-day Puerto Rico probably feel similarly.


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