The first time I read Earl Derr Biggers’ The House Without a Key, I was sixteen years old. Having just received my drivers license, I drove to the Warren Public Library, where my brother and I browsed through mystery novels. That was where we discovered six mystery novels by Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan. The books were in the “Local Authors” section because Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1884. We borrowed the first of the six books, each of them a well-worn hardback . . . possibly from the 1920s and ‘30s.
As soon as I read The House Without a Key, I expressed two wishes: (1) I wanted to read more of these Charlie Chan novels; (2) I wanted to visit Hawaii! The first of these wishes was easily fulfilled: more trips to the public library. I enjoyed each of the following Chan novels even more than I had enjoyed the first one, and I was sad when the series ended with the sixth book.The second of these wishes was fulfilled quite by luck, and as the movie Chan once said: “One grain of luck sometimes worth more than whole rice field of wisdom.” During the 1970s, when both my husband and I were working as letter carriers during a Chicago winter that saw about 90 inches of snow . . . we won a trip to Hawaii! We took it immediately: during the cold, snowy, windy, sleety month of January.
And what was there to greet us at the Honolulu Airport? Besides leis, I mean. What was there, was a wire book rack that contained copies of The House Without a Key. I immediately bought one of these mass market paperbacks and read it. On my second reading, I recognized that Biggers had written a mystery that was also a romance and an adventure story, as well as being a coming-of-age novel and an unabashed touting of Hawaii as Paradise. The novel had more going on in it than I had been able to appreciate as a 16-year-old.
Almost twenty years went by before I read The House Without a Key for the third time. During that time, the 1990s, I was writing magazine articles, and I had proposed a lengthy article on Earl Derr Biggers for Timeline: The Magazine of Ohio History. As part of my research for the piece, I once again read all six of Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels.
The third time around, I was struck by how Charlie Chan as a character earned the respect of all those he dealt with. He was very good at his job, which was detecting the reasons for and the perpetrators of individual crimes. In The House Without a Key, that crime is murder.
Now here I am, fifteen years later, having just read The House Without a Key for the fourth time. One of the reasons I wanted to read it again was that several years ago Academy Chicago Publishers reissued all six Chan novels in quality paperback editions. I have never read a Chan novel that wasn’t falling apart — either from having been read by hundreds and hundreds of readers for decades, or from being an inexpensive mass market paperback printed on cheap paper. Something in me wanted to hold a book that was physically sound.
The fourth time around, I was struck by two things I hadn’t noticed before. First, Biggers refers to algaroba trees throughout the book. Algo-what? I had to look this tree up. How could I have missed this in my first three readings?
Second, I noticed that in The House Without a Key (Biggers’ first attempt at detective fiction) the author allows the police and the reader to suspect one person who seems obvious as the killer. Then that person is eliminated as a suspect. Another takes his place. That person is also eliminated. And so on. Having recently written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, in which I write about patterns of suspicion, I recognized this as the A-B-C-D-E approach, in which the villain is the last person on the list.
As I point out in Guide, this pattern can be satisfying to the reader, but usually more complex patterns (such as A-B-C-D-E-B, in which the villain is not the last person suspected, but is, rather, a person previously suspected) are more satisfying.
And I think that in his other Chan novels, Biggers went on to write more complicated plots. But just to make certain, I’m going to read each of these novels again. Whether that will be in Chicago or Hawaii, only time will tell.