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The House Without a Key

September 29, 2010

So, you can thank Earl Derr Biggers for my meditations on racism yesterday. Reading up on Charlie Chan before I started The House Without a Key, I found an incredibly wide range of opinions on whether or not the depiction of Chan was racist, from “of course it isn’t; he’s a good guy,” to “the broken English and the servility are both kind of massively offensive.” So of course I read the book with the intention of forming my own opinion. And I did. I formed two, actually. One is that any depiction of a Chinese-American as a main character and a good person in the mid-1920s is a really good thing. The other is that consistently having the point-of-view characters be shocked and skeptical that a Chinese man could be a detective is kind of upsetting — and kept interrupting the flow of the story for me. Also I have issues with the way Biggers has the central character duplicate all of Chan’s work.

That said, I’m really enjoying Biggers’ books. I like his plots. I like his atmosphere. I like his characters, even when they think thoughts along the lines of “I seem to be involved with three different women. Huh.”

The House Without a Key
is mostly about the Winterslips, a family of a type beloved by adventure novelists — the kind where most of them are perfectly normal and sedate, and every so often one of them is born with wanderlust. The father of Dan and Amos Winterslip was one of those, so Dan and Amos were born in Hawaii and have lived there all their lives. Their cousin Minerva has a touch of it, too, so she keeps prolonging her visit to her Hawaiian cousins, much to the chagrin of the Winterslips back at family headquarters in Boston. They send John Quincy Winterslip, a nephew who seems to have escaped the “gypsy strain,” to bring her back.

John Quincy is happily leading a fairly dull life. He’s genuinely interested in his job, which has something to do with bonds. He plays a lot of golf. He’s engaged to a girl called Agatha. You get the picture. Except that when he arrives in San Francisco on his way to Hawaii, he has the feeling he’s been there before. It’s less of a hint of the supernatural than a combination of déjà vu and love at first sight, as far as I can tell. And when he gets to Hawaii, he likes it there too, and quickly adjusts to the slower pace and the surroundings.

His arrival is complicated by murder of Dan Winterslip, which takes place shortly before his arrival on the island. For various reasons, John Quincy joins the police investigation of the murder, and finds himself collaborating with Charlie Chan, formerly of China, but a twenty-five year resident of Hawaii. He has a large English vocabulary and uses lots of flowery language, but he’s got little knowledge of English grammar, and he says “are” instead of “is” a lot.

Really there are three investigations going on simultaneously and occasionally intersecting: John Quincy’s, Charlie’s, and the chief of police, Hallett’s. Each of them has things they’re not telling the others, and each of them has some favored suspects — and there are a lot to choose from, because Dan Winterslip wasn’t well liked, and for good reason. The several investigators allowed Biggers to keep a lot of storylines going at once, although I was kind of disappointed by the fact that the one person I thought was going to be a major suspect was basically the one character who wasn’t investigated at all. Also, there’s John Quincy’s  three girls, to choose between, although it’s obvious pretty early on how that’s going to pan out.  Mostly, though, The House Without a Key is a fairly good, sort of run-of-the-mill mystery novel with likable characters and an exotic setting. And Earl Derr Biggers is apparently one of those authors whose books make you want to read more of their work. Next up: Seven Keys to Baldpate.

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