Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The House Without a Key, by Earl Derr Biggers ($14.95) (c1925)

I grew up in Hawaii, many (many, many, many!) years after this book was written, but a nostalgia for the "old days" was instilled in all of us who grew up in an era when Waikiki Beach was obscured by towering hotels, and the smell of the lovely flowers was overlaid by diesel and gasoline fumes.

My grandmother talked about sailing to the mainland on the luxurious "Lurline," one of Matson's ocean liners that plied the waters between California and Hawaii. Nowadays, if I want to get to Hawaii, I sit strapped and cramped in an airplane seat that doesn't even have enough leg room for my 5'3". Pardon me while I sigh and say those were the days.

But they weren't really the days, because paradise is mostly just an illusion in Hawaii. In 1925 there was racism, abuse, labor wars, and yawning class divides. But let's pretend there weren't all these things and just enjoy The House Without a Key for what it is: a grand tootin' mystery with an intriguing character and a nod to a lovely and more pristine Hawaii shared by the kama'ainas and malihinis.

Charlie Chan is a Chinese police detective in Honolulu, a very unusual occupation for a non-white. Earl Derr Biggers does all right by Charlie. He makes Charlie smart and dedicated and not too obsequious. Characters who are just arrived from the mainland are shocked to discover a murder, but they are just as shocked to discover an inscrutable Oriental in charge. Biggers has them overcoming their overt racism within a few pages and then all is well.

A rich man is murdered in his house – to which there is no key, because why would you need to lock your doors in paradise? – thus giving the book its title. His daughter is just returning to the islands. When her boat docks, she is given the news by an older female cousin visiting from Boston. Also on the boat is another cousin who is there to drag the older woman back to Boston, where she will be safe once again in the bosom of the morally upright Boston branch of the family. But Aunt Minerva doesn't want to go back, and John Quincy soon succumbs to the island charms. After all, young Barbara needs their support, doesn't she?

Throwing police protocol to the winds, the police invite young John Quincy, an investment banker by trade, to help them solve the murder. He accompanies Charlie to hither and yon, gets in a fight in nefarious Chinatown, is shot at, and manages to find romance, all within the first week. It is the most fun he has had … ever. And it's lots of fun for the reader, too.

I haven't read most of the Charlie Chan books, but it seems to me that most of them take place in San Francisco or elsewhere on the mainland. That makes this first Charlie Chan book very special.

My favorite part of the story was when one of the characters makes a dashing drive from his house to the piers. These days the drive would take about 40 minutes, but the hero makes it in three. Maybe those really were the days!

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