The things from my life that I turn into books are sometimes predictable, sometimes not. I always wanted to be a baseball player, so it makes sense to me that I turned that desire into a novel, She’s on First. And I worked in the typesetting department of a major newspaper, so it makes sense to me that I turned that into a mystery novel, Dirty Proof.
But back when I first became interested in Earl Derr Biggers, who created Charlie Chan and wrote about him in six novels, I was sixteen years old and never once thought about writing a book about anybody, let alone a long-forgotten author from Warren, Ohio. Perhaps I should have, because on my first encounter with Biggers I realized that I enjoyed his Chan novels immensely. I loved the character of Chan, I loved the humor of Biggers, I loved the mysteries themselves, and I loved the setting. Biggers seemed to excel at setting.
Fast forward to 1998, when I actually began thinking about writing an article (not a book) on Biggers. This was due to the fact that I had written an article on baseball player Alta Weiss (from Ohio) for Timeline: The Magazine of Ohio History, and I was scouting around for another Ohio topic. That’s when and why Biggers came to mind.
When I was committed to the Timeline article on Earl Derr Biggers back in 1998, I had a very difficult time finding any information on him. It was as if his early death (at the age of 49) resulted in the mystery world eventually forgetting about him. Or perhaps, because he wrote during the Golden Age of Mystery, he, along with others, was simply overshadowed by the hard-boiled private eyes that followed.
What I did discover, though, was that his publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, which went out of business in 1954, turned its archives over to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. I called the Lilly Library to see if, within the Bobbs-Merrill archives, there was something on Earl Derr Biggers.
There was. So I made an appointment to research, drove there, and spent three or four days going through everything that was in the file boxes labeled Earl Derr Biggers. I was so impressed with everything that Bobbs-Merrill kept — posters, letters between the author and his editor, telegrams, book cover ideas — that I almost vowed to never throw any written thing away, ever again. Almost. If I didn’t throw things away, I would be overrun by paper.
After doing as much research as I possibly could back in 1998, I wrote the article, and it was published in 1999. I then proposed to Harvard Alumni Magazine that I write an article on Biggers — because he was a Harvard graduate. They accepted my article, which was published in 2000.
Somewhere in the middle of writing the two articles on Biggers, I thought that some day I would write a book on him. Probably. I entertained the thought, but I wasn’t committed to the action.
In fact, any thoughts I had of maybe writing a book on Biggers were kind of quelled by the popularity of the Timeline article. After the piece was published and after the internet grew, my article was and still is reproduced everywhere. Or is quoted as a source. Or is quoted from. And so, for many years, I thought I would never write a book about Biggers because the magazine article was everywhere.
But then, in 2014 I began this blog, Much to Write About. Part of the “much” was Earl Derr Biggers and his Chan novels. In order to blog about them, I re-read them and began to blog about each. The more such blogs I wrote, the more my interest in Biggers was renewed. I now grasped more about the six Chan novels than I had twenty years ago, and way far more than I had forty years ago, and appreciated them more, too. So I began to think about a book again. I felt a bit like Charlie Chan himself, who in the first novel, The House Without a Key, states: “We sway about, seeking still another path.”
Once I decided that I would, in fact, write an entire book about Earl Derr Biggers, I went through all the notes I had taken back in 1998 while at the Lilly Library. I then took my 4,700-word Timeline article and began expanding it. I did this three times, adding more information, changing the structure somewhat, adding subheads, moving things around . . . until I ended up with a 19,000 word piece titled “The Life of Earl Derr Biggers.” This constitutes the first section of my book.
The second section of my book consists of all the analysis and observation I did in the blog articles I wrote. These add another 17,000 words to the book.
One of the most difficult parts of the book was the Acknowledgements and the Sources. They were both hard because I wasn’t keeping notes on everybody who helped me all those years ago. And some of my source material (clippings) was impossible to find publishing information on. But what there is, is very valuable to anybody else who might want to study Earl Derr Biggers. And I hope there are such people.
Biggers’ story is an interesting one. He was a good writer who aimed at pleasing “middle-brow” America. Which means that his books were neither high-brow (intellectual) nor low-brow (pulp fiction). I think he would fall into the category of what we call “popular fiction” today: easy to read. His plotting was excellent, his dialogue clever, and he had a great sense of pace and, as I mentioned earlier, was terrific at setting. His characters were likable and some were quite interesting (Tarneverro the Great comes to mind).
The public loved Biggers’ novels: he was very well known in the US from 1913-onward, and very well known around the world from 1925-onward. My book looks at the problems Biggers faced as a writer. Most of these were problems with his publisher, but some were problems with the public and some with Hollywood. I think that most readers will enjoy learning about writing and publishing by reading the life of Earl Derr Biggers.
I’m very happy that, after all those years, I finally got around to writing the book.
You can read all about Biggers and his six Charle Chan novels in Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers.