This second novel to feature Charlie Chan, the famously sententious detective from the Honolulu Police Department, appears on the surface to be a work of straight middlebrow entertainment. But within its pages, there’s a wealth of material for a certain kind of highbrow literary theorist to muse upon. It’s full of elements that beg (or politely insist, as Chan might do) to be read on more than one level. Start with the title, which refers in a literal sense to a bird named Tony, a bird that someone kills because it had been reciting a line of presumably incriminating speech. Tony could talk, but his “talk” is merely imitative. In a figurative sense, meanwhile, the title refers ironically to Chan. How, after all, do many white people view Chan if not as a Chinese parrot—as an inferior Asiatic who puts on a lively show by straining to copy his betters? Yet Biggers, although he pokes fun at Chan’s less-than-perfect use of English grammar, consistently gives the Chinese detective lines of dialogue that reflect a profound and original intelligence. To complicate the matter further, Biggers requires his protagonist to spend much of the novel in disguise as an ignorant, ill-spoken cook named Ah Kim. Chan comically resents having to commit a multitude of solecisms (he must suppress his ability to pronounce the letter L, for instance), but he inhabits the role plausibly enough. In these and other ways, The Chinese Parrot amounts to a tidy pattern of signs and substitutions, a neat little system of mimicry and imposture.
The storyline of the novel is an overtly simple affair. At a high-end San Francisco jewelry store, the finance magnate P.J. Madden buys a lustrous (and illustrious) set of pearls. Chan, a friend of the family that is selling the pearls, agrees to help deliver them to Madden. Along with Bob Eden, a jeweler in training who serves here as a juvenile romantic lead, Chan ventures to a remote area in Southern California where Madden keeps a ranch home. Within a day of arriving at Madden’s compound, Chan and Eden meet with a series of peculiar or disturbing events: Tony succumbs to rat poison, there is a gun that has gone missing, and odd characters keep sprouting up on the otherwise desolate scene. A Chinese cook turns up dead (Chan, donning the identity of Ah Kim, steps in to replace him), and several clues point to the possibility that another man has been slain as well. But who might that victim be? And who counts as a suspect in this case of a murder that might or might not have happened? In pursuing one investigative lead after another, Chan proves himself to be one clever bird. He then reveals a solution that had been hiding in more or less plain sight. Alas, the plot hinges on a matter of identity that has a big structural flaw in it—an underlying criminal scheme that requires several major characters, including Chan, to be fooled in a way that’s nearly impossible to credit.
That’s too bad. Everything else in this tale—everything that leads up to that problematic ending—exemplifies the best of what popular storytelling can offer. Along with his playful tweaking of received ideas about language, identity, and ethnicity, Biggers delivers a slew of narrative treats: fresh and genial humor, a romantic subplot that carries no trace of smarm or unearned sentimentality, sharply honed descriptions of the California terrain in both its urban and its desert forms. He also captures the core appeal of the sleuthing trade. At one point, after interviewing a witness, Eden asks Chan, “Well, what did we get out of that? Not much, if you ask me.” And Chan replies, “Trifles, mostly. But trifles sometimes blossom big. Detective business consist of one insignificant detail placed beside other of the same. Then with sudden dazzle, light begins to dawn.”
July 11, 2013 at 12:13 PM
Very clever of you to get that metaphoric reading of the title. I’m kicking myself now for missing it, especially with the disguise element so obvious in the plot. I’m sure that Biggers intended the tilte to have two meanings. This is such an improvement on Chan’s debut in THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY with its convoluted plot, emphasis on the young lovers, and a not so interesting protagonist. I don’t know who told Biggers to take his minor character of a Chinese policeman and flesh him out to a leading player, but we should all lavishly thank that person. The books only get better as the series progresses. THE BLACK CAMEL and CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON are exceptionally good, I think, as examples of the late 1920s detective novel.
July 11, 2013 at 12:26 PM
Hi, John. I read “The House Without a Key” a long time ago, but I remember being quite underwhelmed by it. I also read the last Chan novel, “Keeper of the Keys” (it’s reviewed somewhere on this blog), and I liked that one quite a lot. I haven’t read the other three, and it’s good to know that I have something to look forward to, at least with two of them.
But do you recall the plot of “Chinese Parrot”? Do you know what I mean when I refer to a ‘big structural flaw,” or do you think that I’m off-base about that? (Aversion to spoilers keeps me from saying more on this point, of course.)
July 12, 2013 at 6:12 PM
I really don’t know what the “structural flaw” is unless you are referring to a shift from detective novel to action thriller towards the end. I seem to recall a change in narrative point of view when the story focuses on the movie studio location scout (can’t remember her name) and the young man. But I wasn’t bothered by either.
July 12, 2013 at 7:51 PM
Hi, John. Thanks for noticing my question and replying to it. No, the flaw that bothered didn’t have anything to do with the narrative point of view, etc.; it had to do with the core mystery plot. At the risk of uttering a spoiler, I’ll say that it’s about this: Chan and Bob Eden see one thing in San Francisco, and then something different appears at the Madden ranch, and they don’t notice the difference. It is, as I say, very hard to credit. Anyway, I did enjoy the book a great deal—and your review spurred me to pluck it from my shelves a couple of months ago.
July 12, 2013 at 12:12 AM
Great review Mike – I thought I’d read this one decades ago but can;t be too sure and KEEPER OF THE KEYS is the only I can remember wih any certainty – but I really want to try again know – thanks mate.
July 12, 2013 at 9:44 AM
Thanks, Sergio. It’s a fun read. I’d echo what John said in his review of this book (and it applies to the other Chan novels, too): The writing, and the whole spirit of the thing, is surprisingly fresh and modern-seeming for a book published in the 1920s.
November 28, 2014 at 5:44 PM
I enjoyed your review of the book. I’ve only recently taken an interest in the Earl Derr Biggers novels and find them very entertaining. I do agree with you on the ending of this book having a big structural flaw. I found myself trying to rationalize the ending only because I enjoyed everything else about the story. It was similar to watching a good movie only to discover that it was all a dream. All in all, it was worth the time because Biggers does provide the reader a first-hand look at 1920’s America.
November 29, 2014 at 10:35 AM
I appreciate the comment, “willdogs.” And I appreciate your ratifying my take on the book’s structural flaw. Like you, I tend to give Biggers a pass on that point because I like some much else about his way of telling a story.