On Tuesday I looked at Ronald Knox’s omni-misquoted admonishment against detective fiction writers using the ‘sinister Chinese’ stereotype to furnish their villainous plots, so the ground is primed to explore here the other end of that spectrum with the Intuitively Sagacious Minority Written by a Non-Minority Author. And given that the Chinese character Charlie Chan had the era-dense misfortune to be played in some 40 films by two white Americans, there’s a certain anticipatory screwing your courage to the mast before you embark on the books of wondering just how forgiving you’re going to have to be.
Well, everyone relax. Biggers utilises Chan’s foreignness in The Chinese Parrot (1926) in much the same way Agatha Christie would come to exploit the mannerisms of Hercule Poirot over the years, having the character himself play up to it in order to be better overlooked and under-suspected when employed as a man of all work in millionaire P.J. Madden’s remote desert property. Having been charged with delivering a vastly valuable string of pearls to Madden, and with the young Bob Eden along as the face of the exchange, it’s Chan’s intuition that something isn’t right — reinforced by the cries of the eponymous bird — that gives rise to a delay in the handover and so provides the thrust of the plot.
If you can’t figure out what’s going on, hand in your Junior Detectives badge at the gate, because obfuscation is not the book’s strength. The real joy of this one is to be found in the clean, muscular, uncluttered prose and the fact that Biggers provides a blueprint for the mystery story that the likes of Kenneth Millar would pick up on 20 years later. While the trappings may sound like something in the British GAD school, it’s the pin-sharp rendering of the one-horse town of Eldorado and its surrounding desert that firmly fixes this among the sort of Frontier Mystery that grew out of the American obsession with the Western on screen and page alike. Thirty years before John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers (1956) would seek to explore and explode the legacy of the frontier mythology, Biggers is already chipping away at the fallacy of a Brave New World where prosperity, success, and happiness await for all
Take Will Holley, overseeing a newspaper lucky to run to eight pages of local gossip and equally blessed and cursed with three-hundred and sixty five free nights a year, pining for the crowds and hustle of a New York that he knows will have changed beyond his recognition in the time he has been away. Trapped between the excitement of the Madden case and the shame of the station to which he has fallen, Holley exemplifies the extremes that form the background to this tale. Or see the salesman full of patter about the opportunities the desert represents, vaingloriously trying to hide the fear that the best opportunities have already gone begging. Elbow room in the desert, Eden reflects at one point; room to expand the chest. But a feeling of disquiet, too, a haunting realization of one man’s ridiculous unimportance in the scheme of things. The land may be empty, but the more jaded American psyche is beginning to doubt the validity of the opportunities this represents.
Taken in contrast to this — I’m sure Chan’s reflection that the “Chinese knows he is one minute grain of sand on the sea shore of eternity” and is consequently “calm and quiet and humble” is about the most famous thing Biggers ever put on the page — the indignities that Chan must endure (adopting a pidgin English lexicon in his role as ‘Ah Kim’ or the easy, casual racism of Madden assuring someone that “no one was hurt. No white man, I mean, just my old Chink Louie Wong” and the assumption the local police inevitably jump to regarding Tong disputes between Chan and Wong) are both stark and somewhat ennobling. “Life would be dreary waste if there was no thing called loyalty” he offers early on, apparently bearing the brunt of such ignorance though the application of mere dismissal: Biggers makes it clear that the people who espouse these attitudes aren’t exactly the brightest and the best (“Been so busy confiscatin’ licker these last few days I sort of lost the knack for police work.”) and Chan gets his punches in where he can, such as his belligerence in the character of Ah Kim when first threatened with arrest.
I enjoyed so much about this book in spite — or possibly because — of its slow pace and transparent plot, and seeing the twentieth century American mystery take shape before my eyes was a large part of that. Trappings of the English school of course carry over — the flatfoot professional police “with a fatal facility for getting the wrong man”, the assertion that “one unsignificant detail placed beside other of the same” is what will suddenly make the whole skein clear — and clues in the form of unfinished letters and overheard conversation abound. Much of the actual detection takes place off the page — Chan finds something out, and then simply tells Eden about it — and rest assured Perry Mason could get one significant piece of leading a witness tossed out of his courtroom in a heartbeat, so we’re not here for the rococo flourishes a tricky switcheroo of a puzzle; but it’s the focus on the possibilities of open space and easy travel, and of course the fawning deference shown to the great tycoon around whom so much of the mystery swirls, that shows a national identity beginning to form around the precise nature of where this branch of the genre was headed.
Additionally, before the era when romance would intrude on the detective plot solely to broaden the appeal of murder schemes, its refreshing to have here an Inevitable Romance that unrolls with the hilarious energy of the best Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn patter, with location scout Paula Wendell granted a surprisingly ahead of its time degree of autonomy and chutzpah in what could easily be a token role:
“You ought to get a regular taxi, with a meter,” Eden suggested
“Nonsense, I’m glad to have you along.”
“Are you really?”
“Certainly am. Your weight will help to keep the car on the road.”
This in turn allows a flying visit from and to Hollywood (providing “examples of what the well-dressed man or woman will wear if not carefully watched”) which once more underlines the richness and possibility of the country while playing out its elegiac air of wasted potential — its homogenised leading men drawing all the attention while crowds of extras with fascinating stories are ignored (and here, at the peak of what the country seems to strive to be, Chan’s outsider status is woefully apparent: “I am hard to explain, like black eye.”). Interesting, too, that the notion of what a man seeks to attain also being easily taken away from him is so neatly explored, though to say much more would risk spoilers.
I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this, and not just because Biggers has written a fascinating historical document (I’d never heard of a “chock-gee” before) in the cleanest prose you can imagine. For its willingness to hint at the darker side to the American Dream alone — not to revel in the mire pornographically as more famous authors who would follow in his footsteps were wont to do, but to let it peek out around the edges of his situations — this deserves your attention, but away from that it’s a masterful and brilliantly sustained narrative that clearly gave a lot of people a leg-up in the genre and helped carve out the heart of the GAD-era American detective novel. Vital reading on all fronts.
Mike @ Only Detect: Everything else in this tale—everything that leads up to that problematic ending—exemplifies the best of what popular storytelling can offer. Along with his playful tweaking of received ideas about language, identity, and ethnicity, Biggers delivers an slew of narrative treats: fresh and genial humor, a romantic subplot that carries no trace of smarm or unearned sentimentality, sharply honed descriptions of the California terrain in both its urban and its desert forms.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Truly, here is an excellent book not only in the series, but in all of early American detective fiction.