Thursday, July 23, 2015

Earl Derr Biggers' The Dollar Chasers

Earl Derr Biggers
Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) is of course best-known for the rather wonderful Charlie Chan detective stories. Before the Charlie Chan books he’d already had considerable success as a mystery writer, his 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate having done particularly well.

The novella The Dollar Chasers was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1924, a year before the first of the Charlie Chan novels.

The Dollar Chasers is an affectionate parody of the detective story genre. The mystery here does not involve murder but robbery. The crime is the theft of a dollar. It’s not an ordinary dollar but an 1885 silver dollar worth the princely sum of - one dollar. Millionaire industrialist Jim Batchelor really does still have the first dollar he ever earned and it has become a lucky token for him. So important is this coin to him and so great are his superstitions in regard to it that if it were ever to disappear he would be more than devastated - he would be psychologically paralysed. If anyone had a reason to want to sabotage any plans Jim Batchelor was making then stealing that coin would be a good way to do it. As it happens Jim Batchelor does have some big plans in mind and there are people who would very much like to derail those plans. And so the lucky silver dollar is stolen.

The theft takes place on the millionaire’s yacht. This provides the classic golden age detective story setup - the thief has to be someone on board the yacht so there are only a handful of possible suspects.

The detective in this case is an amateur - an ambitious young reporter named Bill Hammond. Bill has a number of very powerful incentives to solve this dastardly crime. If he fails he will be looking for another job. If he succeeds he will be well on his way to a bright future.

As the subject matter would lead one to expect the tone is determinedly light-hearted. Biggers carries this off with a good deal of style. At times the story veers towards farce but Biggers is careful not to push this too far. This story might be whimsical but there’s still a decent mystery plot here even if the crime seems very trivial. Actually it’s by no means certain that there has been a crime - the thief substituted a dollar bill for the silver dollar so in a legal sense there was no actual theft.

The author’s fascination with what used to be known as the Mysterious Orient is already in evidence. A Chinese laundryman and a Japanese steward will play important parts in the story. These characters provide a considerable amount of humour but Biggers has just as much fun at the expense of snobbish Englishmen and American millionaires. The story pokes gentle fun at just about everybody. China plays other equally vital roles in the plot, with Batchelor planning a major but risky business deal there and relying on the advice of an Englishman who is, in the parlance of the times, an old China hand.

All the characters are stereotypes - the inscrutable Japanese steward, the pompous Englishman, the brash American millionaire, the ambitious young reporter, the hardboiled newspaper owner. This is clearly deliberate - this story is parodying all the clichés of detective fiction.

The Dollar Chasers is an amusing and thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment by a writer who clearly loved the detective story while still being able to appreciate its essential artificiality (which is of course as Biggers well understood one of its chief appeals). Recommended.

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