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Monday, January 3, 2011

Charlie Chan #2

The Chinese Parrot is the second novel by Earl Derr Biggers to feature his famous (and in some circles, infamous) Chinese-American detective, Charlie Chan, of the Honolulu police. The first novel, The House Without a Key, was only a so-so mystery, but was sort of a fascinating curiosity since it was written about Hawaii before statehood. Chan was a sort of a sideshow in that novel, coming in to the scene only occasionally to speak in his curiously stilted English and deliver ancient wisdom.

Here the setting has moved to the mainland, where Chan is traveling for the first time, assigned to play caretaker for a valuable string of pearls during their transfer to a cantankerous magnate named P.J. Madden. The jeweler selling the pearls becomes suspicious due to some last-minute changes in the arrangements, and sends his son and Chan down to Madden’s ranch to investigate. With Chan posing as the hired help and the son stalling, the two determined whether something is amiss, and what.

It wouldn’t be much of a mystery novel if there wasn’t, would it? Biggers plot does nicely spread the revelations, and creates many diversions. It’s a nice twist not knowing what crime has even taken place, though it opens the door for a fairly outlandish solution.

Chan is today mostly known due to the movies, where the screenwriters indulged in the less favorable parts of his portrayal. On screen Chan’s English is the source of much fun, which seems especially mean-spirited in light of the fact that he was most often portrayed by a Swedish actor in make-up. The Chan of the novels may appear politically incorrect by our modern standards, but in the context of his time he was actually a groundbreaking figure. It’s noteworthy that Chan is the most able and bravest of the characters in the novel, and commands respect from the others through his ability.

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