Friday, August 22, 2008

The House Without a Key

The key to Charlie Chan’s success as a literary sleuth is supposed to be race. Written during the golden age of crime fiction, the mere six books spawned several movies and television appearances. However, the books do not have the same feel as other detective stories of the day. They really come across as more of an adventure/travelogue mixed with a crime as almost an afterthought. Chan is not the main character, and not the focus of the investigative narrative. In his first book, he does not even appear until several chapters in, and he is a very minor character. The distinguishing feature, then, is the fact that he is Chinese.

That is indeed a part of the charm to Earl Derr Biggers’ books. He wrote his books more to describe the exotic locales and cultures than to present a crime puzzle. The resolution and revelation at the end of House is almost laughable for detective fiction.

Chan himself, however, is a fascinating figure. He keeps his real thoughts close and is a smart detective, just not as showy as most readers are used to. The two-person team formula of detective fiction is adapted. Chan is teamed up with a young hero, forced to engage in sleuthing as an amateur. In House, the hero’s investigation and Chan’s run parallel, and both appear to solve it around the same time; Chan through detection while young John’s is pure dumb luck. In this book, both skill and luck seem to work equally as well.

It would be nice to get more of a glimpse into the methods and thoughts of Charlie Chan, but then again that may ruin the overall effect. There is something in the fact that such a minor character has such a huge effect on the events of the story. Even those with a small role to play are important to the plans of the author.

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