EARL DERR BIGGERS. Keeper of the Keys (1932).

05 Aug

Charlie Chan, in his final published outing (Biggers died before he could chronicle further exploits of the Chinese-American detective), ventures from the semitropic ease of his Honolulu home to the crisp environs of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Traveling purely for pleasure, he exults in his first-ever sighting of snow; it looms above him on the mountain peaks that rim the lake. But then a gunshot pierces the clean alpine air that surrounds his host’s compound, and a fellow guest is found dead, and he gets down to business. KeeperKeys.jpg Assisting the local sheriff, an inexperienced and comically rendered cowpoke type, Chan brings his sententious wit and his unassuming mastery of clue and circumstance to the investigation of who killed opera star Ellen Landini. Suspects, including all of the victim’s husbands (one current and three “ex”), are as thick on the ground as pine cones. Atmosphere counts for a lot in this highly polished tale, and so do various period trappings: a fascination with aviation that figures centrally in the plot; an “aw, shucks” romance between the sheriff and one of the suspects, a perky and plainly innocent lass; references to nearby Reno as the temporary home of vaguely scandalous divorcées-to-be. The murder puzzle is hokey but well constructed, and Chan cracks it in his usual competent fashion.

[ADDENDUM: What spurs me to post this review today is the appearance in this week’s New Yorker magazine of a piece by Jill Lepore on the Charlie Chan phenomenon. Lepore pegs the article to a new book, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang, which focuses on the character’s place in American social and cultural history. But, as she notes, Huang also makes a bid to set Chan within the context of the detective genre:

[H]e writes about . . . the golden age of detective fiction, to point out, quite rightly, that Chan has rather a lot in common with a certain chubby, dainty, and foreign detective named Hercule Poirot, a Belgian in England who is forever being mistaken for a Frenchman, and who is also very clever, can’t keep the order of verbs and adjectives straight, speaks in aphorisms, and was created, by Agatha Christie, in 1920. But then Huang waves Poirot away. All detectives have tics, and quirks of speech, and little affectations. Chan is, somehow, in some ineluctable way, more foreign—the original inscrutable.

In fact, I like the comparison of Chan to Poirot. It captures something essential about Chan, and about the classic fictional sleuth—a figure that, going back to C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, always embodied some kind of “otherness.” KeeperKeysHC.jpg Dupin the aesthete and Holmes the drug fiend were alienated Bohemians who, for precisely that reason, had an uncanny talent for dispelling the crises of a bourgeois social order. Similarly, Chan and Poirot were designated resolvers of the problems and puzzles that beset Anglo-American civilization at a moment when it showed signs of beginning to wane. Poirot was no less “foreign” to English people of the 1920s than Chan was to their American counterparts. As fellows who stood outside the established order, they knew just how to fix it when it went awry. And their eagerness to do so was, to the bourgeois readers of their day, both amusing and reassuring.]

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Posted by on August 5, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


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