Biggers’ The Black Camel: Clues True and False

I have been reading the Charlie Chan mysteries of Earl Derr Biggers’ for the fourth time (having read them the first time when I was sixteen), and I’ve been blogging about them, concentrating on my reactions during the fourth reading. (See Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture.)

unknown-1The Black Camel, Biggers’ fourth Chan novel, is one of the three that I’ve remembered the solution of since I first read the books (the other two being The House Without a Key and The Keeper of the Keys). Up until now, I always considered this the least intriguing of his mysteries, though I’m not sure why. I suspect my original lack of enthusiasm for the book had something to do with Tarneverro the Great, self-styled fortune teller to Hollywood stars. If you look at drawings of Tarneverro on book covers and depictions of him in movie posters, you can see that he’s made to look like an evil villain.

In my first three readings I thought of Tarneverro as cunning, manipulative, and unlikeable. On the fourth reading, though, I felt admiration for his quest for justice as well as for his quick thinking and his skills at deflection and misdirection. Moreover, on the fourth reading I greatly enjoyed watching the way Tarneverro thinks he can outwit Chan when, in fact, he can’t

Tarneverro is a great name for the fortune teller. The first half reminds me of tarnish, whose root means dark or dull; the second half reminds me of any of the roots meaning true or speaking truly as, for example, veracity. Part of Tarneverro speaks the truth. The other part darkens, dulls, or stains that truth.

As intriguing as Tarneverro is, it’s not the fortune teller I want to concentrate on, but the outline of The Black Camel, which I offered in my previous blog, Outline: The Black Camel. In that blog I boldfaced some information and italicized other information — and challenged the reader to figure out what the boldface and italics indicated.

If you read the outline, you’ll see that Biggers did a masterful job of plotting the story of Shelah Fane’s murder and tying it to the murder of Denny Mayo three years earlier. Sometimes mystery writers make the villain the main adversary of the detective. This is a risky ploy because at some point in the novel readers will begin to suspect that the person who seems to be obstructing the investigation is the perpetrator of the deed. Biggers, instead of developing Shelah Fane’s murderer as Chan’s adversary, developed Chan’s “helper” (Tarneverro) as his adversary. This helper is almost as observant as Chan himself, with excellent powers of deduction and the will and skill to act quickly. It is this helper, Tarneverro, who lays down the false clues which hamper the investigation. It is Tarneverro’s aim that Chan never solve the crime of who murdered Shelah Fane. The false clues are in italics in the outline.

unknown-6However, it isn’t the fact that somebody (even a “helper”) is laying down false clues that make The Black Camel such a satisfyingly plotted book. What makes the plotting so satisfying is that the very first thing Tarneverro tells Chan about the murder of Denny Mayo is absolutely true — he, Tarneverro, hopes to reveal the name of the murderer that very evening. Neither Chan nor the reader have any reason to doubt this statement. Chan and the reader accept it as true. Which it is.

But after the murder occurs, everything that Tarneverro tells Chan is false: that Shelah Fane hid in Mayo’s apartment the night of the murder; that she promised to write the name of the murderer in a letter; that the murderer of Denny Mayo also murdered Shelah Fane. Lies, lies, lies . . . but oh so believable lies. Lies that, once you accept the truth of Tarneverro’s first statement, seem to follow so logically that nobody questions them. The lies  rest on the very solid, unshakable truth of what the fortune teller first tells Chan: that he hopes to reveal the name of the person who murdered Denny Mayo.

The construction of the plot is brilliant.

Although Tarneverro is the person shielding the murderer of Shelah Fane, and the character who is most misdirecting the investigation, Biggers further complicates the plot by adding other characters who are also telling lies or withholding the truth. The person telling lies is Julie O’Neill. Those withholding crucial evidence are Smith and Robert Fyfe.

The pace of The Black Camel is brisk: the whole novel takes place in less than 48 hours. The wit is delicious, especially the exchanges between Chan and Tarneverro. The scenes of Chan with his three eldest children are delightful: they speak in slang, which he abhors. The scenes between Chan and the Chief of Police show how respected Charlie is, and show what a good working relationship he has with his boss. And the Chief’s repeated desires to “break Tarneverro’s alibi” (with Charlie always replying that the alibi is unbreakable) add a great deal of reader anticipation: each time I read the book, I keep expecting Chan to break the unbreakable alibi! The reader keeps thinking not that the alibi is solid, but that it will be broken.

If you haven’t already read The Black Camel, now is the time to enjoy it. And if you have, perhaps now is the time to reread it.

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Barbara Gregorich has more to say about not making the villain the main adversary in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.