EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

EARL DERR BIGGERS – The Chinese Parrot. Paperback reprint: Pocket #168, 1942. Reprinted many times since, in both hardcover and soft. Silent film: Jewel, 1927; Charlie Chan: Sojin. Sound film: TCF, 1934, as Charlie Chan’s Courage; Charlie Chan: Warner Oland.

   All right let’s get the racist thing out of the way right now. The Chan books are not racist. (The books! I’m talking about, the books!) They are, in fact, ANTI-racist and anyone who reads The Chinese Parrot will clearly see that Biggers has no tolerance for the bigoted treatment of Chinese and the stereotyped depictions of pidgin speaking characters in fiction. Let me give you two examples:

    1. When confronted by the ignorance of Captain Bliss, a police officer who wants to charge Chan (in his disguise as Ah Kim, a servant) with a stabbing murder, Chan quickly turns the interrogation around and asks the Captain to produce a motive, fingerprints and the murder weapon, in fact any real evidence, before even thinking about continuing his bullying questions.

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

    2. In one of their many secret meetings Bob Eden asks Chan to deliver a message to Madden, Ah Kim’s boss. Knowing that he will have to use his comic servant pidgin speech Chan replies: “With your kind permission, I will alter that message slightly, losing the word very. In memory of old times, there remains little I would not do […] , but by the bones of my honorable ancestors I will not say ‘velly.’ ”

   OK? Enough said. Let’s move on, class.

   If Dell’s mapback series had started up much earlier than 1943 or so the editors might have chosen Earl Derr Biggers’ books as some of the first mysteries to release in paperback. The inside blurb page for The Chinese Parrot, the second Charlie Chan novel, might read something like this:

    What this book is about…

   A $300,000 string of pearls, a parrot that speaks Chinese, a murder without a corpse, a missing antique Colt .45 revolver, an abandoned trolley car with a mysterious occupant, several buried cans, a ghost town in the hills.

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

   This is a vastly entertaining, tightly plotted, and well written book. Instead of Hawaii, the action moves to the mainland. It opens in San Francisco then moves on to a Southern California desert town called El Dorado. Biggers has created some very American characters here and his gift for snappy dialogue makes the book all the more enjoyable.

   Chan has a much larger role here and as mentioned above is undercover in the role of a Chinese “boy of all work” called Ah Kim who cooks, tends to fireplaces and even acts as chauffeur. He teams up with the son of a jeweler, Bob Eden, to uncover some obvious criminal doings at the home of P. J. Madden, a millionaire intent on buying the valuable pearl necklace.

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

   The most baffling of the events is an apparent murder without a body. Tony, the African gray parrot of the title, is quite a mimic and in addition to spouting forth Chinese phrases he also squawks out, “Help! Help! Murder! Put down that gun!” Chan is convinced the bird was a witness to a murder.

   Discovery of a missing antique gun with two chambers empty, and an attempt to hide a bullet hole in a wall by covering it with a painting, both support the theory of a murder having taken place in Madden’s home. But just who was killed and where did the body go?

   Chan may have two white men as his aides in detection in this book, but it is he alone who will unmask the killer in a great finale where we see “his eyes blaze in anger” while covering the villains of the piece with two guns, one in each hand.. Truly, here is an excellent book not only in the series, but in all of early American detective fiction.

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

   Even more striking is that this particular book seems to have been written only a few years ago. There is no sign of that quaint style that often makes a 1920s book unbearable to me. With the exception of only a few topical references tied to the period (the mention of United Cigar Stores, radio as a form of “miracle technology,” a scene where movie actors start dancing the Charleston like maniacs on speed, for example) the story seems to be occurring in the not too distant past rather than the late 1920s.

   There is a movie location scout who talks about the motion picture industry as if it were now and not part of the silent era. There is a real estate agent trying his darndest to sell building lots in a developmental desert community called Date City. He spends his time tending to a feebly spurting fountain outside the gates hoping to lure “easy marks, uh rather, good prospects” into believing they’ll have a lovely new home and a rich life in what is now nothing but barren wasteland.

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

   And there is Biggers’ masterful handling of lively dialogue only occasionally peppered with period slang that makes this a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly modern read for something written 85 years ago.

   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.

   I’ve repeatedly found the Charlie Chan books in my book hunting and buying binges and have owned at least one copy of each title over time. Because I found them to be great sellers in the past I began buying them with the express purpose of making a little cash by reselling them on-line.

   Now with relatively affordable reprint editions from Academy Chicago at $14.95 a pop (with nifty period style cover art) I guess no one will want the older editions unless they come with the rare dust jackets. I’m glad to hang on to the four old Charlie Chan Grosset & Dunlap reprints and the one battered first edition I own of The House without a Key. I’m a new Chan fan for life and I’ll treasure the copies I was lucky enough to find.

           SIDE NOTE:

EARL DERR BIGGERS The Chinese Parrot

   For a fascinating read, find a copy of the recently published non-fiction work Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective & His Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang.

   It’s a combination of a biography, critical essay, and sociological study of the Asian American in popular fiction and movies. Primarily a biography of Chang Apana — a Honolulu policeman who served as the inspiration for Charlie Chan — the book also gives insights into the life of Biggers, all of the Chan books and many of the Chan movies.

   The similarities to Chan in the early books and Apana’s real life prior to his being a police officer are uncanny considering that Biggers had only heard mention of Apana and had never met or talked to him until 1930 or so.

       Previously on this blog —

The Keeper of the Keys (reviewed by Marv Lachman).

Castle in the Desert (a film review by Dan Stumpf).