In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.
Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.
Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.
In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.
In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.
PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.
Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.
Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.
Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.
CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”
In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.
Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.
“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.
LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.
In Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.
That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.
Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:
• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.
• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.
• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.
When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.
Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.