Earl Derr Biggers (1884 – 1933)

Earl-Derr-BiggersEarl Derr Biggers (1884 – 1933) was an American novelist and playwright best known through adaptations of his novels, especially those featuring the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan. The son of Robert J. and Emma E. (Derr) Biggers, he was born in Warren, Ohio, on August 24, 1884. Years later, while attending Harvard University, Biggers showed little passion for the classics, preferring instead writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Richard Harding Davis. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1907, he worked briefly for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and at Bobbs-Merrill publishers. By 1908, Biggers was hired at the Boston Traveler to write a daily humor column. Soon, however, he became that paper’s drama critic. It was at this time that he met Elanor Ladd, who would later become his wife and who would have a marked influence in his writing. Many of his plays and novels were made into movies.

His novel Seven Keys to Baldpate led to seven films of the same title (each largely forgotten) and at least two with other titles but essentially equivalent plots. George M. Cohan (better known as a songwriter, and vaudeville and Broadway song-and-dance man) adapted the novel as a stage play, which undergoes occasional revivals as of the decade of the 2000s, and the film version he later screen wrote (released in 1935) is perhaps the least forgotten of the seven films.

He is best known for the Charlie Chan novels. Chan is a fictional Chinese-Hawaiian detective reportedly created in part under inspiration from the career of Chang Apana. Chan is the hero of a number of books and dozens of movies. At first a sergeant (but later promoted) in the Honolulu Police Department, he and his wife have eleven children and live in a house on Punchbowl Hill. He is a large man but moves gracefully. Biggers lived in San Marino, California, and died in a Pasadena, California of a heart attack on 5 April 1933. He was 48.

The Charlie Chan Series: The House Without a Key (1925), The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind That Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) and Keeper of the Keys (1932).

Charlie Chan is a shrewd Chinese detective on the Honolulu police force. He solves crimes by assuming that, if he can understand a man’s character, he can predict his actions in any given circumstance. He is also fond of spouting aphorisms like, “Insignificant molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain”. Biggers based the character in part on Chang Apana, a real Chinese policeman who lived in Hawaii. The Chan books were popular but the cerebral crimefighter really took off as a B movie hero, with original scripts written by others after Biggers’ death. (Source: Bobb Edwards)

Further reading:

Mike Grost on Earl Derr Biggers: The first Charlie Chan novel of Earl Derr Biggers, The House Without a Key (1925), shows signs of the Realist school of detective fiction, especially Freeman Wills Crofts. It has a policeman as its detective hero. It has a well described Background of Hawaii. It also explores San Francisco in one section. The plot ultimately hinges on that Croftsian staple, the alibi, although there is no “breakdown of identity”. …. Biggers explicitly created his hero Chan as a reply to the racist Yellow Peril stories that were so popular in their era, with their Oriental villains scheming to take over the world. After years of cliched movie adaptations, Charlie Chan is now frequently considered a lamentable stereotype. I am certainly not defending some of the film versions of the character. But it seems inaccurate and unjust to judge the original books by later film versions. Biggers worked hard to shatter racist stereotypes and replace them by positive images of Chinese people. He deserves credit for this, not blame. (Read the complete article here)

I read The House without a Key, the very first Chan book, last year and was also struck but its modern feel and its compassionate treatment of minority characters. I am now determined to read the remaining four books in the series. (J. F. Norris at Mystery File).


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC.  Grosset & Dunlap (USA), 1925)

In The House Without a Key we are introduced to Chan, a corpulent father of nine, as he uses all his considerable faculties to solve the mystifying case of a murdered father and a missing jewel box. When John Winterslip is sent to Hawaii to retrieve his elderly Aunt Minerva, he fully expects to return home quickly. His Boston Brahmin roots, his successful investment business, and his family-approved fiancée are all luring him back home. Shortly after his arrival in Honolulu, however, his uncle, who was reputed to have consorted with pirates, is murdered. Detective Charlie Chan takes up the case. (Source: Bloomsbury)

The House Without a Key has been reviewed, among others, at Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Seeing The World Through Books, Dead Yesterday, Bitter Tea and Mystery, Classic Mysteries, The Book Decoder.