Most of us familiar with the fictional sleuth Charlie Chan are aware he was created by Author Earl Derr Biggers, born Warren, Ohio, August 26, 1884. To my great surprise, while glancing through the Warren-Trumbull County Library’s website I saw under their “One Book/One Community” program, their title book for March 2018 was none other than the first Chan Novel, The House Without a Key (1925)! Under this program, the library’s month-long celebration encouraged patrons to read the novel and then hosted various discussions & events surrounding the author, Hawaii, and (in general) mystery novels. I live in Cleveland, an hour away, and was NOT going to miss this opportunity!
All six library locations participated and events included: book discussions, Chan film showings, Hawaiian music, dance and food events, displays, an escape room with a “find the key” themed challenge, a poster design contest for teens, a book discussion & desert event featuring a popular desert recipe (from The House Without a Key Restaurant, Halekulani Hotel, Honolulu, HI) for Coconut Cake with Raspberry Coulis. And finally, there were various guest lectures. A complete events listing can be found at: http://www.wtcpl.org/images/Connections_Newsletter_Winter_2017-2018.pdf.
These events were especially gratifying for me as author Barbara Gregorich, Earl Derr Biggers’ biographer, whom I’ve corresponded with for more than a decade (but never met) was speaking. Barbara appears along with Chan Family Home Webmaster Rush Glick on some of the Charlie Chan featurettes, which accompany many of the movie DVDs. Happily, I was able to attend two events.
First up, March 3d, was Barbara Gregorich’s lecture, Earl Derr Biggers: Think Like a Mystery Writer. Barbara examined the mystery-writing techniques Biggers put to use, then evaluated how he employed them in each of his six novels. Barbara is a mystery writer herself and teaches writing and self-publishing along with touring to lecture on her books and other topics. So she was especially capable to dissect and illustrate parts of the novel, such as: plot, sub-plot, clues, major/minor characters, red herrings, and how Biggers used these devices. One extremely interesting revelation (for me) was Biggers’ clever method he used in making some 17 suspects easy for the reader to remember in Charlie Chan Carries On. Her presentation lasted about 1.5 hrs and was filled with interesting facts and photographs. And the discussion and questions throughout were very enthusiastic! Then, along with finally meeting Barbara & husband-musician, Phil, I got to attend dinner with her and the graduating class of Brookfield Ohio High School (year purposely omitted), who came out to hear Barbara, a Brookfield High alumnus, speak. As one fellow might put it, “Delight in meeting most eminent writer and lecturer, will remain etched on scroll of humble memory for eternity!” (http://barbaragregorich.com/)
The following week, March 6th, I drove back to hear Trumbull County native and Howland High School (Warren) graduate, Carole Lovett Koontz’ presentation, Serendipity, Mystery, and Adventure: Researching the Life and Works of Earl Derr Biggers. Carole’s lecture was equally as interesting, and surprisingly different. While both speakers covered much of Biggers’ life, Carole’s presentation showed how the author included a thinly veiled Warren in his writing. She drilled it down to specific people and places from Warren and the stories or articles where one may find them, many preceding the Chan novels. Carole also had the opportunity (years ago) to interview Biggers’ surviving cousins and the legal heir of the Biggers estate. Among many interesting topics, she described a painting Biggers had delivered to his New York office. The painting, by famed Warren painter Carl Schmitt, was purchased by Biggers from Schmitt. After her research, Carole concluded the painting probably depicts the very scene Biggers would have viewed walking home to his Boston apartment in the snowstorm after being fired from his position at the Boston Traveler. The painting was one of the few surviving items from the Biggers estate, everything else being destroyed. Alas though, Carole’s investigations did not find what had become of the painting. One can’t help but wonder if it’s out there somewhere, its relevance unbeknownst and sitting on someone’s wall or in their garage—an unknown tribute to one of the world’s most famous mystery writers! A great presentation with much new info and many handouts! Carole Koontz gathered a wealth of information during research for her master’s thesis, titled An Earl Derr Biggers Checklist, Ohio State University (1982). A copy is on file at the Warren Library and various other locations: https://www.worldcat.org/search?qt=worldcat_org_all&q=An+Earl+Derr+Biggers+Checklist
Then, before heading back I visited the prestigious tribute to Author Earl Derr Biggers on display in the main library. In 2017, United for Libraries, the national Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends & Foundations, awarded a literary landmark to commemorate the contributions of this great Ohio author and playwright. You can read all about it and view the landmark on their website, at: http://www.ala.org/united/products_services/literarylandmarks/landmarksbyyear/2017/biggers
Finally, my last inclusion is a travel tip to anyone who might venture a visit to Biggers’ home town. Situated between Cleveland and Warren, on route US422, is the Welshfield Inn (est 1842), Burton, Ohio. The menu reflects local and seasonal fare, served in a historic building that has been part of the community over a century! It’s friendly with good food and reminiscent of days gone by. As I sat soaking in the surroundings and enjoying my repast, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Biggers family hadn’t also enjoyed a meal there on occasion! “What was that shadow in the corner…Earl?”