When I was sixteen years old I read Earl Derr Biggers’ first Charlie Chan mystery, The House Without a Key. And then I read his second mystery featuring Chinese-Hawaiian police detective Charlie Chan — The Chinese Parrot. The bilingual parrot (Chinese and English) is an African grey parrot, though most book covers take liberties and depict it as a more colorful bird.
In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting, I detailed how I read each of Biggers’ six mysteries four times, in order, and how, because I was growing older and presumably smarter as I read them, I saw more within each novel each time around. What I saw in my third and fourth readings of The Chinese Parrot was that Biggers made some important navigational decisions in his second Chan novel: decisions that would determine the direction of future novels in the series.
Despite the fact that the reading public was crazy about Charlie Chan after just one novel, Biggers himself was not sure he wanted to write a sequel. He feared that if he did so, the Chan-crazed public would then demand another. And another, and another after that. His fear, as he expressed it to his editor David Laurance Chambers, was that the public would then accept nothing but Chan novels from him. His freedom to write novels such as his earlier ones (non-mystery novels which put him on the literary map) would be gone. This is, in fact, what happened . . . but the telling of it is another story.
After some thought Biggers decided that with his earlier books, particularly the highly popular Seven Keys to Baldpate, he had (by choosing not to write a sequel) failed to capitalize on an economic opportunity. He determined to rectify that error by accepting the challenge, and thus he wrote The Chinese Parrot.
All of Earl Derr Biggers’ notes, original manuscripts, and rewrites were destroyed after his death: this was something he had requested of his wife, Eleanor Ladd Biggers, and she was true to her promise. So we don’t really know what Biggers’ thinking was as he set out to write his sequel. But as a writer myself, and as a writer of both mysteries and mainstream novels (as was Biggers), and as one who has studied Biggers’ novels, and as one who has read all the correspondence between Biggers and his editor, I’m going to make some educated guesses regarding Biggers’ navigational decisions.
Here I go.
• If Chan is what the public wants, I’d better spend a bit more time on him, a bit less on other stuff. In Biggers’ first mystery, Chan doesn’t enter the picture until a quarter of the story has been told. In The Chinese Parrot, he enters in the middle of the second chapter. And even though Chan is outside his Honolulu jurisdiction, he is still in charge of the investigation by weight of his knowledge, his insight, and his trustworthiness.
• I like Hawaii, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to set every novel in that little crossroads of the Pacific, beautiful as it is. Biggers probably wanted to explore different settings (even different within the Hawaiian Islands) and incorporate them into his stories, but he couldn’t keep going back to Hawaii to do that. So he looked around (he was living in Pasadena) and decided to incorporate California into the stories.
• I’m good at developing setting and atmosphere, and the public has expected that of me since Seven Keys to Baldpate, so I’ll continue doing what I love with setting and atmosphere. Biggers set the beginning chapters of The Chinese Parrot in San Francisco, with Charlie arriving on the mainland for the first time in his life, but most of the novel is set in California desert country. Biggers creates a desert atmosphere for readers, including not only the flora and fauna, but the temperatures, sunrises and sunsets, mountains, ghost towns, dirt roads, fences, gardens, and abodes.
• All of my previous novels, even The House Without a Key, center around a romance. That’s what the public wants, isn’t it? Even in a mystery? In his second novel Biggers followed the same romance pattern he had followed in all his earlier books (a young man meets an independent-minded young woman), but it’s possible he began to suspect that a mystery required less romance and more investigation. Future Chan novels did, in fact, have less romance and more investigation. The romance in The Chinese Parrot occupies less of the story than did the romance in first Chan novel.
• I had that really clever perfect-murder plot in my first Chan novel, so I’ve got to do something equally clever in this one. Indeed, Biggers did do something equally clever in his second Chan novel. After just one reading of The House Without a Key, I remembered the villain and the motive immediately on subsequent readings. But the second time I read The Chinese Parrot I failed to remember the solution. Likewise the third time.
When I began reading The Chinese Parrot for the fourth time, I remembered (once again) that I didn’t remember who the villain was. I didn’t even remember what the crime was! And that was Bigger’s “equally clever” gambit: he created a plot in which it appears there might be a crime . . . but it isn’t clear what the crime is . . . it isn’t clear who the victim is . . . it isn’t clear who the villain is.
On my fourth reading, I forced myself to close the book and talk out loud to whoever would listen, listing the possibilities. This turned out to be a good thing, because halfway through the novel I recognized that my proposed solution was the only solution that explained everything that had happened thus far.
My proposed solution was, in fact, correct. (And I swear I didn’t remember it from the first three readings.) Having finally figured it out on my own, I’m convinced that, should I read The Chinese Parrot a fifth time, ten or fifteen years from now, I will remember the solution. And if I ever come to write a similar mystery, I’ll remember the plot construction and the clues.
My thanks to Earl Derr Biggers for accepting the challenge of writing a sequel, and for making the decisions he did.
Barbara Gregorich writes about mystery sequels and decisions in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. You can read a sample chapter here.