For the past several years I’ve posted a free chapter from one of my books as part of my New Year’s blog. This year I’ll offer two subhead sections from my 2018 title, Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.
The cover design is by Robin Koontz, the photo of Biggers courtesy of the Lilly Library at Indiana University.
Cleveland, Indianapolis, Boston
After graduation from Harvard in 1907 Biggers worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer very briefly (ten days, he later recalled) as a night police reporter. It’s interesting to speculate whether he encountered police detectives while on this job and whether this was why, when he finally decided to enter the field of mystery writing, he made his protagonist a police detective (instead of an amateur or a private detective).
His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the publishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.
For The Traveller he wrote a daily column, “The Fact Is.” Like many daily columnists of the time, he entertained readers with humor, opinion, and verse. Just as his high school articles had dealt with virtue and vice in daily life, so did some of Biggers’ column pieces. His poem “The Rocking Chair Fleet” criticized the habit of gossip, concluding:
Came back at last as these fiction folk do
Only to look on her dear face again —
Ah me, the horror that filled him to find
Her whom he’d known to be pretty and sweet
Putting all honor and truth far behind —
Passing her time with the rocking chair fleet!
When the Chicago Tribune ran an article on thirteen newspaper poets of the day, Biggers was listed as one of them. The author told the Tribune that he wrote the poem “The German Band” because he had heard a German band playing in a narrow alleyway and the sound had made him homesick.
Thankfully for mystery fans (as well as poets), Biggers’ employment as a versifier didn’t last long. After he had been writing “The Fact Is” column for a year, The Traveller made him the paper’s drama critic. A life-long lover of theater, Biggers enjoyed the work. Theater owners and producers, on the other hand, did not enjoy his reviews, which were highly critical. They demanded that Biggers be fired. But the editor — for the time being — refused their demands.
Years later Biggers reflected on the experience. “The truth in dramatic criticisms was not popular in those days among theatrical managers,” he explained to the Warren Tribune, adding that they banded together to drive him from his vantage point. “Large, truculent gentlemen encrusted with diamonds were sent up by the theatrical syndicate from New York to dislodge me. But the owner of the paper was an honest man, he only smiled and sent me word to go on.” And so he did.
For a time.
The Raccoon Coat
During the years that Biggers went to Harvard and then lived in Boston, raccoon coats were all the rage. But they were expensive, and he couldn’t afford one. Finally, though, in November of 1911, he visited his tailor, who held up for his inspection an elegant coat. Biggers recalled it as fur-lined, with “a raccoon collar and great frogs [ornamental coat fasteners] on the front.” The tailor “intimated that this was all I needed to make my position in the literary world secure — and I thought so, too. But the price — the price was staggering. ‘Take it along,’ he said. ‘That’s all right. Pay me any time.’” And so Biggers, goaded perhaps by a sense of fashion, but definitely by a desire to make his position in the literary world secure, bought the raccoon coat on credit.
Among those working alongside Earl on The Traveller staff was Massachusetts-born Eleanor Ladd, who wrote columns under the pen name Phoebe Dwight. Eleanor, New England, and journalism would greatly influence his writing — most of his plays and novels contain an independent young woman; a New Englander; and/or a journalist. Eleanor once described Earl as “a Middle West product with a Boston complex. Boston put an awful dint in him.”
He would need these inspirations soon. One snowy night in January, 1912, he returned to work after a Warren visit. In his absence, the newspaper had been sold to The Boston Herald. The editor handed Biggers a cigar.
“What does this mean?” asked Biggers. “Was I fired last Saturday, or is it next week?”
“It was last Saturday,” replied the editor.
Biggers left the newspaper office (without back pay) and walked into a blizzard. Looking back on that night, he reflected: “By the time I reached Boston Common the intensity of the blizzard had increased, the snow swirled madly through the dusk, the lights in the office buildings along Tremont Street showed a dim yellow in the white light. I stood there in that wintry scene, wrapped warmly in my beautiful coat, broke, jobless, but not unhappy. Go back to a newspaper? No, I’d always intended to write a novel. Now was the time.”
Losing his job and walking into a blizzard was the first major crossroad in Biggers’ life. It stopped him not at all. Combining that wintry night and the symbolic crossroads with an inn situated atop a mountain, he developed a plot and sat down to write his first novel. Unemployed, living entirely off his savings, he saved money by skimping on heat in his rented room. Instead, he wrapped himself in his raccoon coat and pounded away on his typewriter. (His very kind landlady would nonetheless bring him coal for his grate.) When he could afford it, Earl bought peanut brittle and kept it at his side, munching as he wrote.
But writers can’t live on peanut brittle alone, and Biggers would venture into the brutal winter to buy as inexpensive a meal as he could find. “I was learning about life,” he told the Warren Tribune. “Learning, for example, that a large fur coat is very much in the way in one of those dairy lunch rooms where you eat a 15 cent dinner from the arm of your chair.”
Perhaps because he had a limited supply of peanut brittle — or money — Biggers wrote his first draft at the blistering pace of a chapter a day through January and February 1912. He finished in twenty-two days. And then he rewrote at the same pace, completing the second draft as spring arrived. This intense concentration of writing the first and then the second draft would be his lifelong pattern. Dashing off a cover letter, he sent The Seven Keys to Baldpate manuscript to Bobbs-Merrill. Very soon thereafter, there arrived “a telegram from the publisher, a fat advance, and a happy ending for all including the landlady on Beacon Hill and the tailor in Cambridge.”
For the full story of Earl Derr Biggers, read Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.