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