Book Review: The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan series)

HouseWithoutKeyby Brad Nelson
The is the first in the series of novels by Earl Derr Biggers, and generally considered the best Chan novel. Forget about some of the goofy movies. As they say, the books are usually better. And this one is.

John Quincy Winterclip, from the Boston Winterclips, is the protagonist. He is sent to Hawaii, by way of San Francisco, to retrieve his aunt Minerva. She has unexpectedly stayed on well past her planned time in Hawaii at the home of a relative, Dan Winterclip. The family wants John Quincy to coax her back to Boston where she belongs (according to them, at least).

John Quincy’s idea of proper travel is to Paris or London. The idea of going to the frontier in San Francisco (where he also has relatives) and then on to Hawaii is a grand inconvenience. But he will do the family’s business because he is a Winterclip, after all.

While in San Francisco, John Quincy meets with some preparatory adventures, some mild romance, and even some hazards. He’s been told by a relative in the city that there are two kinds of Winterclips: those who stay home and those who have a bit of wanderlust in them. John Quincy turns up his nose at the idea of spending his time in rough frontier places away from his ordered financial markets in Boston.

[pullquote]Chan is intelligent, polite to a fault, and just a bit distant. One of the flaws of this book is that many of the characters are not fleshed out particularly well.[/pullquote] And yet he takes an immediate liking to San Francisco. Could his travels be bringing out the fact that he may be of the adventurous strain of Winterclips?

The first one-quarter of this novel is a rather marvelous and romantic story about getting lost in an adventure and getting changed by it. But John Quincy does then move on quickly to Hawaii where his real adventure begins. It is also where the book tends to bog down a bit in the usual cloak-and-dagger crime novel stuff.

Some of the charm is lost as the book turn into a mere who-done-it and characters are introduced, and suspicion is given to them, as if on an orderly production line. But even so, there is the underlying theme of Hawaii working its magic on the buttoned-down John Quincy, as it seemingly does to most who come to her exotic shores. There are various would-be romances, dangers, criminals, the central crime to the story, and then finally Charlie Chan.

And the Chan of this book is certainly a mildly interesting character, and not quite as he is played in the movies. Chan is intelligent, polite to a fault, and just a bit distant. One of the flaws of this book is that many of the characters are not fleshed out particularly well. Nor is the who-done-it aspect anything particularly novel or well-written. But the tropical romantic aspect of Hawaii, and Hawaii as an actual and interesting place, is played up to great affect. These aspects are enough to overcome some of the deficiencies.

This is first and foremost a crime novel. But the crime aspect is pleasantly intermixed with a coming-of-manhood story of John Quincy (who is in his late 20’s). Although many of the peripheral characters are mere props, John Quincy, as the main character, is fleshed out quite well. All in all, I can recommend this as a fairly quick and pleasant read. I give it 3 lost false teeth out of 5.

Bantam paperback edition (1953)

The House without a Key is available in the public domain as a zipped text file from Aussie Gutenberg.

Here are two other public domain books by Earl Derr Biggers, The Agony Column and Seven Keys to Baldpate.

Here’s the entire Charlie Chan series (scroll down to “Biggers”) and some other books by Biggers in downloadable txt format.

Available in Kindle format from ($7.69, $13.46 paperback).


Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan series)

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    According to Yuang’s book, Charlie Chan was something of a latecomer to the book. Apparently Biggers read some sort of article about the Honolulu detective who was more or less the model (and was regarded so at the time).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Chan was a bit of a latecomer to this book, if that’s what you mean. I think he makes his first appearance about halfway in.

      This book certainly makes me want to travel to Hawaii.

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