Charlie Chan: The Good Oriental

What made Chan such a favorite in the United States was not just his comic misuse of English (routinely pairing singular subjects with plural verbs, for example) or his endless supply of "Wise man say . . ." aphorisms on the order of:

Eggs should not dance with stones.
Theory like balloon -- easy to blow up, quick to explode.
Insignificant molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain.

Nor was it his clever solutions of otherwise baffling mysteries. Charlie Chan knew his place.

In the first Chan novel, The House Without A Key (1925), someone has murdered Dan Winterslip. Suspicion falls upon the proprietor of a rundown hotel down the beach from Winterslip's estate on Waikiki. The victim's nephew, come to Hawaii to persuade his maiden aunt Minerva to return to Boston, decides to stay on himself and assist the police in finding the killer. Leading the investigation is Inspector Hallett, but the brunt of the work falls to Detective Sargeant Charlie Chan. There are a spate of clues, all but one false leads. Chan and young Winterslip (referred to as "the boy" throughout despite being nearly thirty) perservere. Chan's powers of observation and detection not only lead him to the killer; they also exonerate the hotel owner with whose daughter Winterslip has fallen in love.

The novel introduced Chan, and Earl Derr Biggers went on to write several more stories featuring him before his death. By that date the formula was so well established that Twentieth-Century Fox could continue to commission staff writers to turn out three Chan screenplays a year. Chan personified the "wisdom of the East." He set little store by modern forensics, such as fingerprints, although he used them. Instead he relied upon his intuitive understanding of human nature. The Chinese mind, he told Winterslip, was like a camera with highly sensitive film. He merely observed carefully and waited for the "click."

Chan's services inevitably benefitted whites. In The House Without A Key the central figure is the victim's nephew, John Quincy Winterslip, scion of an old Boston Brahim family. John Quincy is Harvard-educated, had served honorably in the war, and earned a good living as an investment banker. He was intelligent, reliable, handsome, and entirely conventional. The "wandering" gene that ran through the family had apparently skipped over him. His older cousin Roger chides him:

"In the old days . . . Winterslips were the stuff of which pioneers are made. They didn't cling to the apron-strings of civilization. They got up some fine morning and nonchalantly strolled off beyond the horizon. They lived -- but there, you're of another generation. You can't understand."

"Why can't I?"

". . . You've never known a thrill. Or have you? Have you ever forgot to go to bed because of some utterly silly reason -- because, for example, you were young and the moon was shining on a beach lapped by southern seas? Have you ever lied like a gentleman to protect a woman not worth the trouble? Ever made love to the wrong girl?"

What John Quincy needs is adventure. He needs to kiss girls in the moonlight. The House Without A Key supplies him with these and with a suitable wife, the beautiful Carlotta (Cary) Maria Egan. All of this will prove that Winterslips still had the "stuff of which pioneers are made." Chan, always deferential, always seeking to extend his knowledge of English and of things American, enables John Quincy to realize his family destiny.

In all of this the matter of race is crucial. Cary describes herself as the product of the Hawaiian "melting pot." Her mother was half Portuguese and half Scotch-Irish, her father English. The Portuguese part of her heritage produced her name but its compatibility with the dominant Anglo-Saxon elements is symbolized by the way Carlotta becomes Cary to one and all.

Chan meanwhile is the patriarch of his own large family, nine children plus nephews and other kin. His, the novel notes, is a family in which the young still respect their elders. In the same fashion, Chan respects his superiors and, especially, John Quincy's claim to social superiority. Chan is, in sum, the polar opposite of Fu Manchu. He is the master detective as opposed to the master criminal. He seeks not world domination but merely a place in the world for himself and his family where he can practice his skills. He is aided, not by a beautiful slave or a vampish daughter, but by eager if inexperienced sons and nephews. Most importantly, he seeks not to overthrow western civilization but to adapt to it and to uphold its laws.