Friday, September 25, 2015

Charlie Chan

Behind that Curtain - Earl Derr Biggers

This novel is the third Charlie Chan mystery.  San Francisco is evocatively described so we readers can enjoy the vivid sense of place Biggers put across in the first two Chan outings. He handled the setting of Hawaii beautifully in the first one The House Without a Key (1925) and described the Mojave desert country in the second The Chinese Parrot (1926).

Like all the other Chan novels, this was originally published as a serial in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post, so some chapters end with cliffhangers. The plot is intricate, involving murders committed years apart and a woman who changes identities at the drop of a hat. Or in this case, the drop of a pair of Chinese slippers, which is the only clue that ties the two killings together.

Another plus is Biggers’ understated sense of comedy. His stand-in who gets off witty observations, Barry Kirk, is a rich bon-vivant who has funny exchanges with his society matron grandmother and his would-be girlfriend, an assistant district attorney named Miss Morrow. Biggers is sensitive to the career obstacles faced by working women, though he will often refer to Miss Morrow as “the girl.” Biggers was born in 1885, after all.

Activists and critics nowadays disrespect poor Charlie Chan for his inscrutability, servility, dainty walk, sing-song voice, and unidiomatic English (in Behind That Curtain, he says, “The facts must be upearthed”). Writer Gish Jen even dismisses Chan’s astute intelligence, designating him as “the original Asian whiz kid.” I wonder sometimes if nowadays critics are annoyed with Chan less because of the novels but more because of the movies which had Caucasian actors playing Chan and period stereotypes of blacks, Asians, and women.

For what it’s worth, I think in both the novels and movies Charlie Chan is wise, courageous, modest, patient, devoted to his family, and loyal to his friends. Like many non-native speakers, he uses English in his own unique way that, as a speaker of broken Japanese, I can’t help but respect him for the time and effort that he put in to get fluent in a second language as an adult. The Chan novels overturn Chinese stereotypes because Chan was playing the role of the Good Guy, whereas most Chinese characters in fiction back then were villains.  

 Generally speaking, I like detective fiction from 1920s and 1930s.  As formulaic as it is, I like the atmosphere, characterization, and narrative push. I like it that violence happens off stage. There is little or no moral relativism, film noir-ish nihilism or sociopathic tough-mindedness.  I must not be alone in this preference – for once  – since the Chan novels never stay out of print and are available on these new-fangled contraptions like Kindle.

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