Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

Biggers, Earl Derr. The House without a Key. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008.

(This book was originally published in 1925.)

If your thing is thrillers that jump right into a murder before you’ve even figured out who the main characters of a book happen to be then The House without a Key isn’t for you. You won’t find any dead bodies until you’re about 1/4 of the way into the book. I do happen to like those types of thrillers – in the right place and at the right time – but I absolutely loved this, the first of Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan mysteries.

To be honest, when this book was chosen for the Connecticut mystery book club, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie. I hate to say it, but my only real knowledge of this particular detective comes from the nods given by Saturday morning cartoon animators in the 1970s. I can’t even tell you which cartoons (Hong Kong Phooey, certainly, but he wasn’t very Charlie Channish. Bugs BunnyScooby DooThe Flintstones?) sometimes featured Chinese detectives based on the character. Repeated exposure to cartoon images of the detective did help the young me figure out that Charlie Chan was a movie character, but, you know, those were old movies, like, from my father’s time, when it only cost 10 cents to go see something in black and white.

If this first book is any indication, I’m surprised that Earl Derr Biggers isn’t the household name among readers that an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler is. Maybe that’s what happens when Hollywood truly gets hold of a character but not the author who created the character. I mean no one talks about Hercule Poirot movies or Philip Marlowe movies. The authors of the characters are the names people know. I’m quite sure that if I asked your average reader, “Have you ever read any Earl Derr Biggers?” the answer would be, “Who?” He really deserves more than that.

I loved the slow start to this book that lured me in and made me forget I was reading a “murder mystery”, so much so that I was a bit shocked when I finally encountered The Body. We’re given details that bring both the setting (Hawai’i) and the characters to life. Biggers definitely knew about patrician families and the “black sheep” of such families. He paints a dream-worthy portrait of Hawai’i, a place whose trade winds can mesmerize even the most Patrician members of a New England patrician family, causing them to lose all sense of themselves (maybe even to forget proper grammar). I could just taste the pineapple and smell the leis made with fresh flowers.

Books like these are the ones that make me hate the notion of “genre fiction” and everything it implies to most critics. Then again, I have to admit that I’m a bit elitist in my own way when it comes to genre fiction. Tell me you love to read 21st-century romances, or mysteries, or (popular where I live, the relative newcomer) inspirational fiction, and I’m highly likely to judge you as a rather superficial reader. But tell me that you love the romances or mysteries or inspirational fiction (most of Louisa May Alcott, for instance) that have proven the test of time, and I’ll judge you as a “real reader”.

There are pages in this book that you could’ve handed to me before I read it, asked me who I thought the author was, and I might have responded, “Henry James?” Or someone of his era and disposition. So, yes, there is a murder, and we eventually get caught up in all the things I love about a good murder mystery: whodunit? why? which clues mean something?, etc., etc., but there’s also an undeniable focus on class distinctions, racial distinctions, family dynamics, and gender issues, all set against the backdrop of these exotic islands. So exotic are they, in fact, those from the mainland keep forgetting it’s a part of America. No, you don’t have to worry about converting foreign currency. No, you don’t have to learn another language. My one visit there led me to sympathize with these notions of being in a foreign land, because it really is like being in another country.

It takes a while, but finally, enter stage right: Charlie Chan. I didn’t remember from cartoon portrayals that he’s such an obese man, but obese he is. I guess this helps him loom larger than life, initially. Once you get to know him, though, he certainly doesn’t need girth to loom larger than life.

Again, I don’t know what I was expecting, a Chinese Sherlock Holmes? More likely than not, yes. But Chan is not a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. First of all, rather than being the center of attention, he’s almost a minor character. And he is far, far more patient than Holmes, not only with his “stupid” associates, but also with life in general. He’s a man who just calmly goes about solving mysteries, never racing to any locations, but being exactly where he needs to be when he needs to be there in order to receive the information that just comes his way, almost obedient to his expectation that it will. Meanwhile, he enjoys his life while waiting to receive such information.

I have to admit that I had my eyes wide open for early 20th-century racism to rear its ugly head. I’m sure (maybe that’s unfair, coming again from someone who’s judging without having been exposed to something) that the movie versions of Chan were full of it. Here, I was hard-pressed to find it. Yes, Charlie Chan speaks a very interesting version of English, but he speaks it eloquently and intelligently. He’s not portrayed as some strange “Chinaman” who “put pee-pee in your Coke” and who goes around with chopsticks ready to attack cats for dinner. He tends more toward that sage “Confucious say…” Chinese stereotype, but even there, he seems to draw a line and to come down to nothing more than a brilliant observer of East and West, an ability that serves him well in his profession. All I can say is, “Kudos to Bigger for being so far ahead of his time and place.” (Then again, I’m a white, Southern, Anglo-Saxon female. Those from different backgrounds – Chinese Americans, say – might heartily -- and have every right to -- disagree with me.)

One other thing I loved about the book was the humor. Bigger knew how to play off the weaknesses of the aristocracy, and he did so with such grace. It’s funny how often I’ve been surprised to find myself laughing out loud over the books we’ve read for this group. I love funny books. Why do I assume most murder mysteries won’t be funny? Is it because I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie? She’s not real funny, but you know, the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (or to make it more recent) Donald Westlake and Janet Evanovich sure knew/know how to make a reader laugh.

Finally, we get to the whodunit? itself (we always do, don’t we?). I love an author who can surprise me, and Earl Derr Biggers did. It isn’t that I didn’t quickly peg who I thought was the murderer, it’s just that I fell for the killer’s alibi until the end of the book when I was finally told how it didn’t hold up. I love a good mystery, especially one that does such a good job of surprising me and that includes a little romance on the side (I suppose, today, this book would be slotted into the "romantic mystery" genre, but, like any good book, it's so much more than that). Need I say I’d like to make Earl Derr Biggers a household name?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Why, yes, here I am. Has anyone even noticed that I’ve been MIA? Probably not. Before I get started on this long-overdue post, I wanted to let those of you who don’t already know and who might be interested in my more contemplative side that I’ve got a new blog this year over here. I can't promise that I’m any better about writing there, though, than I am about writing here. I can promise that books play a major role, as they always do, no matter which side of me you’re encountering.

Now, I thought maybe some of you might be interested in a glimpse at a week in the life of a writer who is hard at work on the second draft of a novel. She’s been working on this second draft for well over a year, had been sure it would be done by now. This, she has discovered, is what happens when one writes the first draft constantly saying to herself, “Just get it down, get it down. You can look that up, work that out, fix that, etc., etc. when you get to the second draft.” (Okay, maybe this didn’t all happen in one week, but it’s sort of an “average” week and very easily could happen all in one week.)

Writer has just been informed by a high school swimmer that the high school swim season is in the fall. Writer could just pretend to ignore this fact, calling on “poetic license,” and could let her teenage character live in an area where swimming is a spring sport. After all, the book takes place in a town that doesn’t exist. Why couldn’t it have an imaginary swim season? But writer is anal retentive and always wants basic facts to be accurate. This necessitates a complete reorganization of the book, because a major episode in the book revolves around this teenager who is on the high school swim team.

“Thank God for computers that allow one to cut and paste. This shouldn’t be too difficult to do…Oh, wait a minute, if this section is moved here, and this section is moved there, then I’m going to have to change that whole boat section, since most people don’t go boating in Massachusetts in the middle of January. Oh, that’s perfect, the fight between [character A and character B] works much better now that it’s been moved. Oh, but wait a minute. Oh shit, [Character A] can’t be pissed at [Character B] for [Action C] when [Action C] hasn’t even happened yet. Damn! How am I going to fix that? Will it help to move Action C to Chapter 3? No, not unless I get rid of [Character C] in Chapter 3. But I don’t want to get rid of Character C in Chapter 3. That’s one of the best parts of Chapter 3. She deserves to stay. Hmmm…maybe if I cut this section, move that to Chapter 6, and add a bit here about why Character A and Character B won’t see eye to eye? There. Oh, hell, Chapter 3 is now 78 pages long, and Chapter 5 is only 3. Oh, and the vernal equinox has taken place in early August.” (It’s worse than one of those old-fashioned, uncreative, math “word problems” isn’t it?)

At which point, writer goes and pours herself another cup of coffee and decides to check Facebook and email and respond to neglected friends and family members.

No matter how difficult it is, writer is determined to sit at the computer, working on the second draft of the novel for at least two hours (the minimum she has allowed herself to put into it every day).

“Okay, I’ve got this figured out now. Just need to add a scene to Chapter 4 that will help Chapter 5 make sense.”

Writer opens her saved working outline of the book to see where this new scene might make sense in Chapter 4. The outline mysteriously stops after Chapter 3. The book has many more than 3 chapters.

“Huh?! What’s happened to my outline? I can’t work without my outline! Don’t tell me I accidentally cut a huge chunk of my outline and saved it that way.”

Writer resists the urge to cry, takes the deep breaths well-meaning friends always tell one to take in these situations. Anyone else notice that they rarely ever seem to do a damn bit of good? She scrolls up and down the document in the hopes that the rest of the outline will magically appear. Then, she looks at the title of the document and realizes it says “Outline 2.” It’s not The Outline, but rather, a confusing document she created when playing around with cutting and pasting the true outline. Writer is thrilled and immediately changes the name of “Outline 2” to avoid confusion in the future, then gets to work writing the new scene.

“Oh, I love that. This is perfect. I wonder why I didn’t think to put that in there when I was writing the first draft. This is gonna be so good!”


Writer is now reading the new scene she wrote yesterday.

“Huh? This makes absolutely no sense at all. [Character D] sounds like a robot. Nobody talks like that, and could [Character A] be any more of a cliché? “

Writer spends well over an hour rewriting the scene and still isn’t happy with it.

“Oh well, I’ll work on that in the third draft.”


You may be wondering what happened to Day 4. So is writer. On Day 4, there was a massive storm, and water began to pour through the light fixture in the upstairs bathroom. Writer and her husband had to find multiple buckets, mops, etc. and deal with the mess, which was an indication that the house needs a new roof. In the midst of that, one of the elderly members of husband’s congregation (did I mention he’s a minister?) went to have cataract surgery. His wife was supposed to drive him home after the surgery, but she got dizzy and passed out while waiting for him. The hospital wanted to admit her, but she insisted on going home, so they called the church (because their children couldn’t help) and minister and wife (because, you know, she’s just trying to write a novel and doesn’t have a real job) were enlisted to pick them and their car up to bring them home.

So, now it’s Day 5. Writer has gotten to a section in the first draft of the novel where she has a sticky note that says “Research post-partum depression.” She figured, when she stuck that sticky note there, that she’d just do a quick online search to see if what one of her characters was doing might be typical of someone suffering from post-partum depression. Writer goes online to discover that there’s postpartum depression and then there’s a very rare thing called postpartum psychosis, which seems to be the better diagnosis for her character.

“God, I don’t want her really to be that sick. She’s got to bounce back and be okay and return to the way she was when she was first married. What am I going to do?”

Writer spends her time doing more research than she’d wanted to have to do, then figures out how to keep her character just sick enough to be able to retain the key elements she needs to make the story work but not so sick that she drowns all 3 of her kids in the bathtub (a subplot that would ruin the book).


Writer spends half her time poring over details about the character with post-partum depression from the beginning of the book to make sure they make sense. Once satisfied, she begins rewriting and revising a relatively straightforward section of the book that doesn’t need many changes.

“This is so much fun. I love writing!”


Writer reaches a section she realizes needs about three extra scenes if it’s going to work now that she’s had to rearrange everything according to a different calendar. She looks to see if cutting and pasting other scenes and changing some of the details might work. Nope. In fact, she’s discovered that she just might have to delete some of those scenes (one of which she’s already re-written twice and now loves), because they don’t really make much sense anymore. She begins writing one of the new scenes and is completely dissatisfied and frustrated. She double checks to make absolutely certain there isn’t something she can just cut and paste and use here. Nothing. She gets up and does some yoga stretches. She sits back down and hates everything she’s written. Even though it’s only 10:30 a.m., she contemplates fixing herself a vodka gimlet.

“Now I know why Hemingway and Faulkner were alcoholics.”

Instead, she closes the laptop and picks up a book to read. Nothing like a little distance to get some perspective. Tomorrow, she’ll start again.

There you have it, all those of you who might wonder how an aspiring author spends her week. I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone who’s always dreamed of writing a novel and hasn’t begun yet. If I have, please reread "Day 6" and focus on that. For some reason, the ecstasy of that one day far outweighs all the agony of any of the others. What can I say? It's one of life's best highs, and you keep going waiting for the next one.