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.
15 thoughts on “#721: The Chinese Parrot (1926) by Earl Derr Biggers”
This is a fabulous appreciation of a seriously underrated writer. One of the only mystery writers of the last half century I can fully enjoy is Westlake writing as Stark, and it turns out Westlake/Stark has a connection with Biggers and this particular book other than the common excellence of their prose: https://thewestlakereview.wordpress.com/tag/ask-the-parrot/
Stark’s prose has that same bleached quality, now you mention it — I was tempted to claim Ross Thomas as another writer with clear Biggers influences, but Westlake/Stark is far closer to the knuckle.
Content-wise they’re obviously miles apart, as your own superbly detailed piece makes clear, but there’s a jaded air creeping into Biggers’ work here that’s reach full fruition by the time Parker was kicking ass and taking names. I’m tempted to imagine him somewhere in the background here, as a young kid getting ready to get angry…
I would also agree with the recommendation for this book. It is worth looking out for the Wordsworth editions paperback which has this novel, The House Without a Key and Behind the Curtain in the same volume as well as an introduction which mentions that Charlie Chan was inspired by an actual detective in the Honolulu detective force and that Biggars said that part of his motivation for writing the books was to act as a corrective to the yellow peril books.
In that regard, the Wordsworth Sexton Blake book includes a story entitled The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle which is basically a checklist of the cunning celestial tropes although rather fun in its way
That reminds me; I meant to say how much I love this Academy Chicago edition, which misrepresents the parrot but is wonderful in every other way. Personally, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of these versions, but it’s nice to have a range of reprint options for people who might want something different.
I’m just an innocent bystander–and not responsible for that excellent piece–but your observation about a a young Parker possibly beginning to pick up attitude seems spot on. The evolution of that jaded tone across the board seems pretty fascinating, even if it seemed to become more of a default than anything else.
Ha. Well, after 20+ years of watching the American Dream turn increasingly sour, it’d be difficult for your average gumshoe to get too excited about too much, eh? 😄
Glad this went down so well JJ. Been ages since I read these but your enthusiasm as always is very infectious (now there’s a newly loaded term). You must let me talk you round on Hammett though 😉
Oh, I haven’t forgotten that we’re going to discuss Hammett, worry not. I’ve even bought some books to read in preparation. Looking forward to getting into that with someone who feels an enthusiasm for it that is alien to me.
As for Biggers — I can’t remember how this book came to my attentions (I’d normally start with the first in a series, which I understand features Chan far less prominently than even this one) but it’s wonderful to be struck by the freshness of an author’s prose and the clarity of their ideas at first meeting. I’ve read more than a few new-to-me authors in this last month who are just hard work, so when something like this comes along you can bet I’ll get enthusiastic about it 🙂
Yes, disillusionment definitely seems like a side effect for Stateside truth-seekers–and after your clear-eyed takedowns of Chandler, I too am looking forward to see how Hammett fares in comparison. Well, we do already know your rating of a certain book about a bird of prey. 🙂
There’s certainly a plan for a podcast episode in the coming months where someone who likes this stuff a lot more than me is going to try and win me round. Time will tell…!
given that the Chinese character Charlie Chan had the era-dense misfortune to be played in some 40 films by two white Americans
Three actually. Roland Winters played Chan in the final six Monogram films in the 40s.
Oh, well that makes it better, I suppose… 😄
I’d say that The Black Camel is the best of the Chan novels. Wonderful book.
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Awesome, great to know that the high standard set here is maintained, and possibly even bettered, elsewhere. I’m really looking forward to more of these in due course.
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