The House Without A Key by Earl Derr Biggers

The House Without A Key

Biggers, Earl Derr. The House Without A Key. New York: Triangle Books, 1925, reprinted April 1941. pp. 316.

Completed: 5 January 2012

Miss Minerva Winterslip, of the Boston Winterslips, has gone to Hawaii to visit Dan and Amos Winterslip.  Finding the climate and company inviting, she has remained considerably longer than intended.  Both Dan and Amos enjoy her company. Her relatives back in Boston are not amused and decide to send John Quincy Winterlsip, a young but quite steady individual to retrieve Minerva.  It is not seemly that spinsters should be gallivanting about.  Besides, Dan Winterslip is rather the black sheep of the family and not the sort of person respectable people should be seen with, never mind actually residing in their house.  John is therefore instructed to go to Hawaii and bring Minerva back to the arms of her clan in Boston.  John would rather develop a new bond issue, but bows to the dictates of the clan.

On the day of John’s arrival in Hawaii, Dan Winterslip is found murdered, stabbed through the heart.  Minerva refuses to leave the islands until the murderer has been found.  Minerva is rather shocked that a Chinaman, Charlie Chan, is put in charge of the investigation and orders John to help him.

Dan, it turns out, has a rather shady past.  It is not at all clear how he made his fortune but plenty of people seem to resent him for that fortune.  The chief suspect is Jim Egan the impoverished owner of a nearby hotel.  For some reason Dan is afraid of him, or so it is said.  Carlota Egan, Jim’s daughter, having just returned from the mainland, is left to fend for her self and run the hotel as her father is thrown into jail.  Meanwhile, John is mucking about, getting in Charlie Chan’s way and forming romantic delusions with Carlota and Barbara (Dan Winterslip’s daughter), while fretting about his maybe fiancee back in Boston.

What a fabulous story. The House Without a Key was Biggers first Charlie Chan novel.  Prior to this novel I was only familiar with Charlie Chan from having seen a dozen or more of the over 40 films made about the Chan character.  It turns out that Biggers only wrote 6 Charlie Chan novels.  I was sufficiently impressed with this story that I intend to seek out the remaining five novels.  This novel is certainly superior to any of the Chan film’s I have seen.

Many stories I find that I have to push my way thorough.  Every once in a while I come across an author who’s writing just pulls me into the story.  Biggers seems to be one of those authors.  Biggers lets the characters show what is happening to them instead of telling the reader what is happening.  The characters grow and change through the course of the novel.  For example, this is the scene when Minerva (and the reader) are first introduced to Charlie Chan:
“As they went out, the third man stepped farther into the room, and Miss Minerva gave a little gasp of astonishment as she looked at him.  In those warm islands thin men were the rule, but here was a striking exception.  he was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman.  His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting.  As he passed Miss Minerva he bowed with a courtesy encountered all too rarely in a work-a-day world, then moved on after Hallet [the chief of police].
“Amos!” cried Miss Minerva.  “That man— why he— ”
“Charlie Chan,” Amos explained.  “I’m glad they brought him.  He’s the best detective on the force.”
“But— he’s a Chinaman!”
“Of course.” ”

By the end of the novel, Minerva has revised her opinion of Charlie.  This is not totally surprising, nor is it out of character for Minerva.  Right form the start she was shown as a person, rooted in her Boston upbringing with all its prejudices but sufficiently still her own person to resist and rebel and change.  Charlie Chan, of course, is able to winnow his way through the many byways surrounding the murder of Dan Winterslip and arrive at the correct conclusion.  There are lots of red herrings for Charlie and the reader to run down.

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