A conceit can be an artistic effect or an imaginative notion. In novel-writing a conceit can be thought of as a concept or setup. In Earl Derr Biggers’ last novel, Keeper of the Keys, the conceit works to control the structure of the plot and also to entertain the reader. The conceit (which must have delighted Biggers) is this: five more-or-less ex-husbands of the same diva meet in an isolated Lake Tahoe home in order to answer a question. The diva herself is invited to attend the meeting. The result is murder.
Did ex-husband number one kill her because she had hidden a secret from him for seventeen years? Or was it ex-husband number two, who was both angry and humiliated by her running out on him after a few brief months of marriage. Perhaps it was ex-husband number three, a calculating sort who was actually hiding the information that number one craved.
Ex-husband number four isn’t really an ex, not until the Reno divorce becomes final. Once the diva is murdered, however, the divorce isn’t necessary, and number four hopes he inherits all her wealth. Is he the guilty ex?
Or perhaps it’s husband-to-be number five, himself a talented singer who happens to be fifteen years younger than the diva. And, yes, who has been promised that he will inherit all her houses and all her wealth.
Charlie Chan is hired by Dudley Ward (ex number one) to visit his Lake Tahoe home and attend a dinner party at which the other exes will be present. A dinner party at which Ward will ask each of the ex-husbands whether it’s true that, after she divorced him, Ellen Landini bore a son whom she gave up for adoption. Chan’s job is to detect whether the other exes are telling the truth when answering Ward’s question.
Literary critics have written that of the six Chan novels, Keeper of the Keys is the one in which Biggers does a classic job of putting clues in plain sight, thus allowing readers an opportunity to fit the pieces together and solve the crime. I will say that when I first read this novel, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t able to put the clues together and solve the mystery. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed the main clue altogether. However, like the murder method in the first Chan novel and like the solution to the fourth Chan novel, the revealing clue in the sixth novel is memorable. In each of my subsequent readings of Keeper of the Keys, I remembered what the clue was and thus who the murderer was. In many ways this book reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel (whose title escapes me) in which the murderer is known to have a physical deformity — which turns out to be something quite unremarkable, but which I remember each time I read the book.
Having come to national fame as a writer of romantic escapade novels (Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1913), Biggers never constructed a plot that didn’t contain a romance. In the first Chan novel the romance was the main thread, the mystery a tad secondary. By the time he wrote his sixth Chan, Biggers clearly relegated the romance to second place. In Keeper of the Keys the romance doesn’t enter until after the murder.
As always, Biggers excels at creating setting. His Lake Tahoe and Truckee of the early 1930s are vivid, and Charlie’s delight at experiencing snow for the first time is wonderful to read about.
Perhaps because the setting is cold, Chan is more physically active than in any of the previous novels. He climbs trees, he tracks footprints in the snow, he wrestles with an opponent in the dark, and so on. Though he’s at a disadvantage because of his age and obesity, Chan wins out over his adversaries.
One of Biggers’ greatest accomplishments in his final Chan novel is the criss-cross pattern of character revelation. When we first meet Ellen Landini, we see her as self-centered, selfish, and oblivious to anything other than what she wants at the moment. As Chan observes of her constantly looking for a husband other than the one she currently has: “Ginger grown in one’s own garden is not so pungent.” Landini’s line of character revelation starts out at the bottom: but by the time the book ends, new information moves that line upward.
The murderer’s line of character revelation, on the other hand, starts out at the top, with the character being perceived as congenial, fair, and considerate. But by the book’s end, new information moves that character line downward, toward the bottom. The paths cross in a giant X, with the murderer starting out at the top left of the X and plummeting downward; the victim starting at the bottom left of the X and moving upward.
Had Biggers not died at a relatively young age, he would have gone on to write more Chan novels. Based on his evolution as a mystery writer in just six books, it seems fair to say that he would have come up with even more fascinating conceits, settings, and character development.
In Sound Proof Barbara Gregorich employs a delightful conceit of three different crimes — theft, blackmail, murder — committed at the same music festival.