The House Without a Key, published in 1925, was the first of the Charlie Chan mysteries by Earl Derr Biggers. The six Charlie Chan novels were immensely successful but the movies based (loosely) on them were even more so - in fact there were no less than 40 Charlie Chan movies!
The movies have been attacked for supposedly promoting racial stereotypes. I haven’t seen the movies but the intention behind the books was to overturn racial stereotypes by having a Chinese hero at a time when Chinese villains were far more common in popular fiction. The character was based on a real police officer, Chang Apana, who had a distinguished career as a detective with the Honolulu Police Department.
Apart from Charlie Chan himself the book gains added exoticism from its Hawaiian setting. This is the Hawaii of the 1920s, at a time when most Americans didn’t even know Hawaii was part of the US.
But how does it stack up as a mystery novel? In fact, pretty well. It follows the rules of the golden age of detective fiction with a host of suspects and with clues liberally scattered about.
John Quincy Winterslip, a rather strait-laced young Bostonian stockbroker from a very old New England family has been dispatched to Hawaii to bring his Aunt Minerva home. The Winterslips as a family are a strange mix of ultra-respectable Puritans and feckless adventurers. The fear is that Aunt Minerva may be about to desert the respectable side of the family.
Minerva is staying in Honolulu with her cousin Dan Winterslip, the least respectable Winterslip of them all. When Dan is murdered John Quincy finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. That’s disturbing enough for this sheltered young man, but even more disconcertingly he finds himself rather liking the island lifestyle. Bond issues no longer seen quite so exciting. Going swimming on Waikiki Beach with Carlota Egan seems much more alluring. Carlota is not the sort of girl he could take home to meet Mother, but he’s starting to think that maybe she’s his kind of girl anyway.
There are plentiful sub-plots involving opium smuggling, blackmail, and dark family secrets. There’s romance and there’s some gentle humour.
There’s a great to deal to enjoy in The House Without a Key. It’s published in paperback by Wordsworth in the Charlie Chan Omnibus along with two other Charlie Chan mysteries. As with all Wordsworth’s titles in their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series it’s superb value for money. Warmly recommended.