When I was sixteen years old and first read Earl Derr Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels, I loved each and every one, but my favorite was the fifth book, Charlie Chan Carries On. However, I couldn’t really say why.
What was it about this book that made it my favorite? Was it the fact that the story took place on an around-the-world cruise, and that this setting appealed to me? Or perhaps I loved the novelty of having one detective be the protagonist for the first half of the book, and another detective take over for the second half of the story.
Back in the 1990s, after I had already read each book twice, and was about to embark on reading each a third time, I did a lot of research on Earl Derr Biggers. This included reading all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, David Laurance Chambers of Bobbs-Merrill. From these letters I learned many things I hadn’t known — including something about Biggers’ attitude toward writing Charlie Chan Carries On.
Specifically, I learned that Biggers complained to Chambers about the fact that so many of his fans were telling him he should write a Chan mystery in which Charlie goes to London and meets up with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard (introduced in Behind That Curtain), and the two of them solve a case together.
Which part of these suggestions repelled Biggers more, I don’t know: that he take his character to London, that Chan co-star with Duff . . . or that the fans felt they could tell Biggers where to set his books. Disregarding all these suggestions, Biggers wrote a fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, in which he took Charlie home to Hawaii. Inspector Duff was not present in the novel.
Still . . . there was something about the London suggestion, or the meeting-Duff-again suggestion that appealed to Biggers. And so he plotted that Duff and Chan would work together — but not in the way the fans had suggested. In Charlie Chan Carries On Biggers turned the first part of the story over to Inspector Duff in London, then, in the second half, had Duff meet Chan in Honolulu (not London!). Charlie takes charge in the second half of the story and solves the mystery that Duff hadn’t yet solved.
As I read the correspondence between Biggers and his editor and recalled the plot of Charlie Chan Carries On, I chuckled. Biggers managed to both give the fans what they wanted (another meeting between Duff and Chan) and not give them what they wanted (Chan in London). I think that in writing this book he was showing mystery readers who is in charge of the novel: the author.
Still, learning this about Biggers and his fans’ suggestions didn’t reveal to me why Carries On is my favorite of the six novels. So this time around, for my fourth reading of the novel, I decided to pay very close attention to the question of why I like this book the most.
It’s a very well constructed mystery, as are all six of the Chan novels. The story starts out in London, where Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard investigates a murder that occurs at Broome’s Hotel. The murdered man, Hugh Drake, was a member of Doctor Lofton’s Around the World tour. Duff questions all seventeen members of the tour, but gets nowhere. He wants to keep the tour from leaving, but the British legal system will not let him do so because he has no evidence with which to charge anybody with murder.
In Nice a second member of the tour is murdered. Duff, who has arrived in Nice, learns that somebody in San Remo, Italy, is in danger, even though she’s not part of the tour. Duff travels with the tour to San Remo, but the person he means to protect is murdered. Neither Duff nor the Italian police can solve the crime, and so the tour continues eastward while Duff returns to London — after asking Pamela Potter, a tour member, to keep him informed by letter, and to cable him if anybody else is murdered.
Back at Scotland Yard Duff and his superior decide to put an undercover Yard man on the case: he will join the tour in Calcutta, working on the ship’s crew. But this undercover operator does not make it past Japan.
As the tour boat makes its way to Hawaii, Duff is sent to the US to investigate safe deposit boxes (which play a role in the murder) and, eventually, to meet the tour ship when it arrives in Honolulu.
There the long-awaited reunion between Chan and Duff takes place, with Chan and Duff treating each other to lunches and Chan inviting Duff to his home for dinner.
And then, the night that Duff is to sail to the States with the remaining tour members, he is shot while in Charlie’s office at the Honolulu Police Station. Before he passes out Duff whispers, “Carry on, Charlie.” Duff’s life is saved, but he cannot leave the hospital.
At this point Chan takes over, stating that his honor has been assailed and that he will solve the case for his friend. The last seven chapters of the book take place aboard the President Arthur as it steams its way toward San Francisco. Chan has Duff’s case notes with him and proceeds to question the tour members.
In my fourth reading, I was able to determine the identify of the killer by Chapter 18 (of 23) — with the same method that Chan was able to determine his identity. (Of course, unlike Chan, I had been here three times before!)
There are three things I noticed during my fourth reading that I hadn’t noticed in my first three. First, I observed that in this book Biggers’ does an amazing — and very funny — job of spoofing both Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and her Miss Marple. I’m amazed that I never noticed this before.
Second, I think Biggers’ depictions of Americans abroad is hilarious. Earl and Eleanor made several trips abroad, and they must have encountered many Americans tourists such as the always-taking-pictures Mr. Benbow. Or the crude but good-at-heart gangster, Max Minchin. Perhaps one of the reasons I love this book so much is that the writing is so funny.
Third, I observed that although there are seventeen suspects, it was always very easy to know which character was which. I’ve read books in which there are six or seven suspects . . . and I can’t identify who is who when they next appear in the book. We’ve all had similar experiences. So how did Biggers manage to do this?
Although Duff had to question all the suspects, Biggers broke them into small groups. First we meet Doctor Lofton, who is in charge of the tour. That’s one character. Then we meet Pamela Potter and her mother. That’s three. Pamela is distinct because Mr. Drake was her grandfather and also because she is the youngest woman on the tour, perhaps twenty years old. The mother goes back to the States, so seventeen are down to sixteen. We then meet Mrs Spicer, who had the room next to Mr. Drake. We also meet Mr. Honywood, whose room is on the other side of Drake’s. We now have four characters to know (Lofton, Pamela Potter, Spicer, and Honywood). They are very distinct from one another. So far, an admirable job by Biggers.
Duff asks Doctor Lofton to assemble the tour members in a lounge. But five of them aren’t back from their London jaunt yet, so they will be questioned later. One of the seven new characters, Mr. Tait, faints the moment he enters the lounge. His young assistant, Mr. Kennaway, helps him into another room.
Now we have five people left to concentrate on: Mr. Ross, a timber merchant; Captain Keane, who isn’t a captain and who seems to lie about everything; Mr. Vivian, who seems to be the paramour of Mrs. Spicer; Norman and Laura Fenwick, brother and sister. We learn about these five, and it’s easy to keep them distinct because of their different ages, different origins, and different attitudes. The Fenwicks want to leave the tour and eventually do, narrowing the number from sixteen to fourteen.
Finally Duff meets the five people who weren’t there at the beginning of the questioning. Mr. and Mrs. Benbow are distinct because Mr. Benbow records each step of the world tour on film and is thus always with his camera; Max Minchin is a gangster from Chicago, with a very distinct way of speaking, and his wife Sadie buys jewelry everywhere they go. Mrs. Luce (the Miss Marple Spoof) is a 72-year-old sharply observant world traveler who has stories to tell about every port she has visited, and who draws lessons from her life’s experiences. As I said, these five characters are easy to keep straight, making this round-the-world story a real pleasure.
There is much I admire about Charlie Chan Carries On, but even now, after reading it a fourth time, I can’t pinpoint the reason why it’s my favorite. So let’s just say that the sheer scope of the book is what appeals to me.
Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies contains suggestions on how authors can keep characters distinct to readers.