In The Spotlight: Earl Der Biggers’ The House Without a Key

>In The Spotlight: Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in TinselHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many of us, Hawai’i is exotic, so a novel set there has a sort of special appeal. And it’s about time this feature included one of Earl Der Biggers’ Charlie Chan stories, which have become iconic. So today let’s put the two together and turn the spotlight on the first of the Charlie Chan novels, The House Without a Key.

John Quincy Winterslip is a traditional ‘blueblood’ Boston broker who travels to Hawai’i to visit some distant cousins. He also has another motive for going to Honolulu: he wants to convince his Aunt Minerva Winterslip to return to Boston with him. She went to Hawai’i to visit for six weeks; but ten months later, she’s still there. He’s hoping that a visit from him will give her the impetus she needs to go back.

While on the boat, he meets his cousin Barbara, whose father Dan he was planning to visit. Barbara is returning to Honolulu from college, and the two strike up an onboard friendship. Winterslip is looking forward to his cousin showing him around Honolulu, but on the night the ship docks, Dan Winterslip is stabbed.

Minerva Winterslip hears the noise of an intruder, but when she goes downstairs to investigate, everything is dark. All she sees is the glow from the dial of a watch. The killer, whoever it is, escapes and Minerva calls the police. When they arrive, in the form of Captain Hallet and his assistant Charlie Chan, they take charge of the investigation.

Once it’s reasonably clear that neither John Quincy nor Barbara Winterslip could be the murderer (they were still on the ship), and that Minerva had absolutely no motive, the police begin to look into the victim’s background. And what they find isn’t the kind of thing an important family like the Winterslips would want to have plastered across the newspapers.

In part to protect his family’s name, and in part because the victim was a member of the family (albeit not close), John Quincy starts asking questions of his own. And in the process, he learns more about his relative’s rather dark history. And that history means that there are several suspects. Winterslip had secrets, which left him open to blackmail. He also had a rather nasty reputation, which left him open to a vengeance killing. There are other possibilities too. But slowly, John Quincy and Chan get closer and closer to the truth about the murder.

The trail leads to some ugly places, and at more than one point, John Quincy is in real danger. But in the end, he and Charlie Chan, both separately and together, find out who really killed Dan Winterslip and why. And in the process, they help to solve another case too.

Most of the action takes place in and around Honolulu, and Der Biggers places the reader there distinctly:

‘It was the hour at which she [Minerva Winterslip] liked Waikiki best, the hour just preceding dinner and the quick tropic darkness. The shadows cast by the tall cocoanut palms lengthened and deepened, the light of the failing sun flamed on Diamond Head and tinted with gold the rollers sweeping in from the coral reef.’

Besides the physical beauty of the islands, readers also get a sense of the culture there. Hawai’i is home to many different ethnic groups, and we meet them in this novel. There is a blend of Japanese, Chinese, Native Hawai’ian and White (American and English) customs in the islands, and we see that in the story.

Although John Quincy Winterslip is the protagonist, the case is mostly in the hands of the police. It’s solved through evidence, witness testimony, and so on. But the mystery also has a touch of the adventure novel about it. Without spoiling the story, I can say that it’s not a psychological novel where the case hinges on the relationships among the characters. That said though, readers who don’t care to suspend too much disbelief will be pleased to know that this also isn’t overly swashbuckling, if I can put it that way.

Some of the characters figure importantly in the story. One is of course John Quincy. The story is told (in third person) mostly from his perspective. As the novel begins, he’s a bit strait-laced, and very conscious of his family and the expectations for him. He misses Boston and looks forward to returning to his life there. As the story goes on though, he begins to evolve. He takes some risks he wouldn’t have taken back home, and begins to re-think his life and his plans. You might say he does some growing.

There’s also Minerva Winterslip. She’s just as Bostonian as John Quincy is in terms of her somewhat aristocratic nature. And she is the equal of anyone in conversation and quick thinking. She’s independent and perhaps, a little eccentric. On the surface, she can have a rather acerbic way about her, and she has no compunctions about telling the police that she thinks they’re moving far too slowly on her cousin’s murder. But at the same time, she has a compassionate side as well. She’s an example of the ‘maiden aunt’ character who can be found in many classic/Golden Age crime novels.

The character of Charlie Chan has been more controversial. One the one hand, he is intelligent, quick-thinking and resourceful. His superiors trust him implicitly, too. While Hallet is nominally in charge of the investigation since the Winterslips are important people, he puts the case completely in Chan’s hands and it’s obvious that he respects the man. Chan puts the pieces of the puzzle together and actually arrests the killer. That said though, many people have said that Chan’s way of speaking English lends credence to unfortunate stereotypes about Asians in general and Chinese in particular. So does his manner, which some people see as obsequious. And John Quincy sometimes feels a real cultural gulf between Chan and himself. This is one of those cases where each reader will probably draw individual conclusions.

One of the other elements in the novel is a hint of romance in the Golden Age tradition. John Quincy’s love life does get a bit complicated and readers who do not like romantic plot threads will notice this. But that said, it’s not the most important aspect of the novel. The main focus is on the search for the killer of Dan Winterslip.

The House Without a Key is a Golden Age/traditional mystery that takes place in a beautiful and exotic setting. It features a young man from Boston who gets quite a lot more than he bargained for, and a Chinese police detective who has his own way of getting to the truth. But what’s your view? Have you read The House Without a Key? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 24 November/Tuesday 25 November – The Suspect – L.R. Wright

Monday 1 December/Tuesday 2 December – Thumbprint – Friedrich Glauser

Monday 8 December/Tuesday 9 December – Vanish – Tess Gerritsen


Filed under Earl Der Biggers, The House Without a Key

20 responses to “In The Spotlight: Earl Der Biggers’ The House Without a Key

  1. I have read this book and I liked it a lot. Even though I already enjoyed the movies, I was not sure I would like the books. I have read three of the six, and the first and last ones in the series are my favorites (so far). And I did note some changes in Charlie’s character over the three books I read.

    • Tracy – I’m very glad you’ve liked the Charlie Chan books you’ve read. I think you’re right that Chan’s character evolves a bit as the series goes on; I think that makes him a little more human. And I’m glad you mentioned the films. They are somewhat different to the books, and some people like them better, while other people prefer the books.

  2. I haven’t read this Margot. I would love the setting, it would just soak me up in happiness, but I’m less of a golden age reader I’m afraid.

    • Rebecca – Let’s face it: GA isn’t everyone’s cuppa. I think you really would like the setting, but I don’t see how anyone’s got time to read everything…

  3. Without ever having read the books, somehow I’ve always thought Charlie Chan was a kind of Fu Manchu type of character, with a bit of martial arts stuff thrown in. No idea where I got that impression from! As a result I’d never have thought of reading one of the books – so you’ve taught me something today. I’m still not sure if this would be for me – the stereotyping would probably irritate me – but at least I’d be more open to the idea now… 🙂

    • FictionFan – It’s interesting you’d mention the Fu Manchu character. Der Biggers was said to have created Charlie Chan as an antidote to that stereotype. He’s no weakling, but he’s not a Fu Manchu type at all. Still, there are some stereotypes here and there (it is GA) that you would notice. That said though, I think Chan is treated more kindly, if I can put it that way, than other authors of the day treated people from China. As you say, it may not be for you in any case, but it’s an interesting take on the type.

  4. Really enjoyed reading your review Margot – I love the movies but haven’t read any of the Chan novels in decades and really must look at them again as they are after all quite different from their celluloid counterparts – cheers (and aloha) 🙂

    • Sergio – The books and films are definitely different. It’ll be interesting to see what you think of the books after not having read them in a long time. I wonder which you’ll think superior… Aloha and cheers to you, too! 🙂

  5. This sounds like a good option for those interested in trying out a Charlie Chan mystery, Margot.

  6. Col

    I hope to read this one at some point in the future. On the pile already!

  7. I’ve only read one book by Earl Derr Biggers, not this one, but you and others are convincing me I need to get him on the list.

  8. Margot, you know I’m a fan of the Earl Derr Biggers novels. You’re right – Charlie Chan was meant to be a response/reaction to the Fu Manchu stereotypes. And I agree that Charlie Chan matures over the course of the six novels. I do recommend the books strongly.

    One other point: did you know there really was a “House Without a Key” in Waikiki? It was on the site of today’s Halekulani Hotel, and the hotel has remembered it by naming one of its signature lounges after the book. I had the pleasure of dining there (and enjoying the Hawai’ian music) a couple of years ago. For readers who are interested in learning more, there’s a website for the hotel and lounge:

    • Thanks for that extra information, Les. I was hoping you’d see this post, as I know you’re a Der Biggers fan. I wasn’t aware that there really was a ‘House Without a Key.’ Folks, check out this great site!

  9. Hi Margot. Thanks for spotlighting House Without a Key. I confess I’ve not read it but I jove love those old Charlie Chan movies!

    • Bryan – I know how busy everyone gets, but I do hope you’ll get the chance to try one of the novels. They’re different enough to the films that I think you’ll get another perspective on the character. If you do read one, I’d love to get your thoughts on it.

  10. I read it about ten years ago, then went on to read the next two, and have the pleasure of the others before me. The Chan in the books is very different than the one portrayed by Hollywood, ho played it all for laughs and camp (though the term camp didn’t exist at the time the films were made). The books are straightforward mystery novels and there’s no “yukking it up” involved.

    As for the “many people have said…” and “some people see…” parts of your review, I’m sorry you felt the need to mention that. Let those people reflect on when the books were written and how things were at the time. Biggers was only writing what was, and could never have guessed what might be socially acceptable decades in his future.

    • Richard – You’re quite right that the films are very different to the novels. As you say, the novels themselves are straightforward mysteries, while there’s a lot more camp and wit in the films. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series.

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