Author and playwright Earl Derr Biggers was an exceptional “Reconteur” (from Old French meaning to tell). And like any good storyteller he drew from his own experiences and quite often from real life. Here are some real-life associations, comparisons, and even an anagram, which the author may have borrowed from or used in writing his six Charlie Chan novels. Earl Derr Biggers asked that all his personal notes and records be destroyed upon his death, and his wife, Eleanor, carried out that wish. So, the only records existing are primarily his publishers’ records: the Bobbs-Merrill Collection, now held at the Lilly Library, Indiana University. Now you may find much that follows is conjecture on my part, often without proof. However, I hope you’ll agree the similarities are too close to ignore! And as everyone knows, a good detective never puts much stock in coincidence and more often goes with his gut! So, let’s try to peek inside the mind of this pioneer in early American detective fiction and see what we find. Here are six excerpts from each story, followed by a real-life comparison. I chose two characters, three locations, and a book title (title for this blog). So, what do you think: how’s my aim?
- The House Without a Key (1925):
Character: Jedediah Winterslip (Chapter I). “Miss Minerva strolled aimlessly about the big airy room, pausing finally before the portrait of Jedediah Winterslip, the father of Dan and Amos, and her uncle. Dan had had it painted from a photograph after the old man’s death; it was the work of an artist whose forte was reputed to be landscapes–oh it must assuredly have been landscapes, Miss Minerva thought. But even so there was no mistaking the power and personality of this New Englander who had set up in Honolulu as a whaler. The only time she had seen him, in the ‘eighties, he had been broken and old, mourning his lost fortune, which had gone with his ships in an Arctic disaster a short time before.”
Real-life: John Dominis. John Dominis, began life in Boston MA and started his maritime career on the Brig “Owhyhee” [old spelling for Hawaii]. He married Mary Jones in Boston, October 9, 1824. He first arrived in Honolulu on the “Bark Jones” April 23, 1837 with wife Mary and son “John Owen Dominis” [6yrs old), moving his trade operations to Honolulu. During 1842 – 1846 John Dominis (Sr.) built in the heart of Honolulu a beautiful, stately mansion, later called Washington Place in honor of George Washington, which subsequently became the residence of Hawaii’s Governors. Earlier on, from 1823 – 1845, he had sailed trade routes between Hawaii, California, Alaska, China, New England, trading salmon, peach trees, and sheep among other things. He was one of the pioneers to draw other American traders and settlers to the Northwest coast to help create the “Oregon Question.” Capt Dominis sailed out of Honolulu, August 15, 1846 aboard the brig “William Neilson” for China to assist the new US Commissioner in Honolulu (George Brown) to establish closer relations. Both men perished at sea without trace. Queen Liliuokalani, many decades afterwards, maintained he had been strangled in his bed and thrown overboard. John Owen (the son) later became governor of one of the islands and married Princess Lydia, who in 1891 became Queen Liliuokalani. (Note: for 31 yrs, John Dominis was also the name of one of Honolulu’s most prestigious restaurants, until 2010.)
- The Chinese Parrot (1926):
Book Title: The Chinese Parrot (Chapter V). “His only companion on the ranch. A little gray Australian bird that some sea captain gave Madden several years ago. Madden brought the bird—its name is Tony–here to be company for the old caretaker. A rough party, Tony–used to hang out in a barroom on an Australian boat. Some of his language when he first came was far from pretty. But they’re clever, those Australian parrots. You know, from associating with Louie, this one has learned to speak Chinese.”
Real-Life: “PAHU”-King Kamehameha V and his sister Victoria Kamamalu’s pet parrot. Here’s an excerpt from Honolulu Magazine, “Royal Pets,” (February 2010):
“Queen Kaahumanu kept a taboo pet: a large, black hog which she named after herself. King Kamehameha V and his sister Victoria Kamamalu kept a spoiled and pampered parrot named Pahu who chattered constantly in Hawaiian and sat on a perch at Iolani Palace. Queen Liliuokalani had a pet tortoise. Reports that Princess Kaiulani had a pet wallaby are unconfirmed.”
King Kamehameha V, was monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1863 to 1872, and passed away December 1872. His sister, Victoria (and heir apparent to the throne) died in May 1866. It is well documented that prior to writing the Chan novels, Earl Derr Biggers, vacationed in Hawaii in 1920, and there got an idea for his first novel “Key.” Did he also read or hear about the royal pet—Pahu? Perhaps recall this unusual feathered creature, when looking to pen his second novel The Chinese Parrot? The similarities between the fictional “Tony” and the real “Pahu” are awfully close. Both rather spoiled pets (a rich financier as owner for the fictional “Tony,” and a King for real-life “Pahu”.) And both chattered incessantly! There was later even a hula written about the king’s parrot, making him somewhat famous (or infamous.)
- Behind That Curtain (1928):
Location: Marchetti’s restaurant, San Francisco, CA (Chapter XIV). “They descended to the street. It was a night of mist, with occasional fierce rain. Kirk found his car and helping the girl in, drove from the deserted business district to Union Square, where bright lights were gleaming on the wet pavements. The cable-car bells rang cheerily, a flotilla of umbrellas bobbed jauntily along the sidewalk; the spirits of the people of San Francisco, habitually high, are not to be damped by a little rain. “How about Marchetti’s?” Kirk inquired. Sounds good to me,” Miss Morrow answered.”
Real-life: Marchetti’s Italian Restaurant, Los Angeles, CA. During the late 1920s, Marchetti’s became one of the Wilshire District’s most fashionable eateries. Completed in 1925, the Renaissance Revival building was noticeably more elaborate than many of its neighbors; its ground floor was punctuated by arched windows and pilasters, while its one-story height was given a boost by a pitched terra cotta roof. The restaurant relocated to Beverly Hills in 1933, while its original space was replaced by Lucca’s, a San Francisco-based Italian restaurant. Earl Derr Biggers moved his family to Pasadena, CA, in 1925. Is it feasible that Biggers, already a nationally recognized author and playwright, never heard of, or frequented, the famous Marchetti’s restaurant located only 10 miles away in Los Angeles? Looking at Earl’s robust figure…highly doubtful!
- The Black Camel (1929):
Character: Maskelyne the Great–Magician (Chapter XXI). “A big idea struck me. In my younger days I had been an assistant to Maskelyne the Great, one of a long line of famous magicians, and a man of really remarkable powers. I had some talent in a psychic way, had told fortunes as an amateur and had the nerve to carry the thing through. Why not, I thought, take an impressive name, set myself up as a crystal-gazer, and by prying into Hollywood’s secrets, seek to solve the mystery of poor Denny’s death? The whole thing looked absurdly simple and easy.”
Real-Life: John Nevil Maskelyne. This one’s a bit of a “wanker,” as there were three of them! John Nevil Maskelyne (the grandfather, 1839-1917) was an English stage magician and inventor of the pay toilet, along with many other Victorian-era devices. He also invented many illusions still performed today. Maskelyne was adept at working out the principles of illusions, one of his best-known being levitation. Levitation is commonly, but incorrectly, said to be Jean Eugene Robert-Houdini’s Illusion, but it was Maskelyne who invented it. His son, Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1964), was also a stage magician and inventor, who assumed control of the family businesses upon his father’s death. Then the grandson (Nevil’s son) Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973), also a British stage magician in the 1930s and 1940s, worked for British Military Intelligence in WWII and is said to have used his skills in illusion to invent large-scale ruses, deceptions, and camouflage for MI9’s, Deception Dept. Earl Derr Biggers and his wife Eleanor were known to visit Europe in 1914 and later the ‘20s, for both writing inspiration and pleasure. It was there he probably heard of, attended a performance, or maybe even met one of the two elder Maskelynes. My guess is he’s referring to the elder.
- Charlie Chan Carries On (1930):
Location: Broome’s Hotel, London England (Chapter II). “To speak of Broome’s Hotel in connection with the word murder is more or less sacrilege, but unfortunately it must be done. This quaint old hostelry has been standing in Half Moon Street for more than a hundred years, and it is strong in tradition, though weak in central heating and running water. Samuel Broome, it is rumored, started with a single house of the residential type. As the enterprise prospered, more were added, until to-day twelve such houses have been welded into a unit, and Broome’s not only the way to Clarges Street in the rear, where there is a second entrance.” . . . The various residences have been joined in haphazard fashion, and a guest who walks the corridors of the upper floors finds himself in a sort of mystic maze. Here he mounts three steps, there he descends two more, he turns to the most eccentric corners, doors and archways bob up before him where he least expects them . . . Kent, the managing director of Broome’s, was resplendent in morning coat, gray waistcoat and tie . . . “I know,” Duff cut in. “But unfortunately murder and publicity go hand in hand. I should like to learn who the murdered man was, when he got here, who was with him, and any other facts you can give me.” “The chap’s name was Hugh Morris Drake,” answered Kent, “and he was registered from Detroit–a city in the States, I understand.”
Real-life: Broome Park Hotel, Kent, England and Winchester Mystery House, San Hose, CA. Here we find a combination of two very prestigious locations. Let’s deal with the British end, first: Broome’s. In my research, I could not find a Broome’s Hotel in London ever existed, especially near the site in the book. However, a Broome’s does exist today dating back to 1638. (A Lord Kitchener passed it on to his nephew in 1916, The Viscount of Broome). It lies 1.5 hour drive outside of London in the county of Kent (reference the novel, Broome’s managing director—Mr. “Kent”.) It is a rather distinguished Country Club and golf resort. For a while, 1928-1932, it was leased to an Australian newspaper proprietor, Mr. Hugh Donald McIntosh. (Here’s that anagram: notice the initials H.D.M and our murder victim from the novel: Hugh Morrison Drake—or H.M.D—hmm). We know that Bigger and wife, Eleanor, took many trips to Europe. In my inquiries with the current manager of Broome’s, he told me they have no records of attendance that far back, but if Biggers’ did stay at Broome’s in the ‘20s, it could have been as a guest of the Australian newsman Hugh D. McIntosh. And in his earlier years, Biggers was a newspaper man himself. So that gives us our clues to the story’s Broome’s (the hotel), Mr. Kent (the manager), and the murder victim (H.M.D.) If Biggers’ did stay as a guest of the Australian newspaper man, did he promise to kill him off in a novel? Now let’s stroll across the moor to San Hose, CA, Winchester House. Winchester House, a Queen Ann Victorian style mansion, was originally started in 1844 and completed 1922 (after 36yrs of additions) by Sarah Winchester, wife of the famed firearm magnate William W. Winchester. It has roughly 161 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, two basements, and three elevators—all set on 4.5 acres. So, we know it existed when Biggers moved his family to Pasadena, CA in 1925, 5 hours away by auto. The fictional Broome’s Hotel was a melding of twelve individual houses, joined in a haphazard fashion. As for Winchester House, the description is spot on, “Sarah Winchester did not use an architect and added on to the building in a haphazard fashion, so the home contains numerous oddities such as doors and stairs that go nowhere, windows overlooking other rooms and stairs with odd-sized risers.” The clues are all there and it isn’t too far a leap-of-faith to conclude Biggers’ fashioned the Fictional Broome’s Hotel from Broome’s Country Estate in Kent and Winchester Mystery House, San Hose, CA. (Photo’s courtesy Broome’s (top); Gentgeen (bottom).
- Keeper of The Keys (1932):
Location: Sing Gow’s Fish Market, Jackson St. San Francisco, CA (Chapter 18): “I envy you. You will walk again the streets of the village where you were born. You will supervise the selection of your own burial place. I myself will see that your trunk is prepared and sent to you while you await the boat. Where shall I send it?” “To the establishment of my brother, Sing Gow, in Jackson Street. The Fish Shop of the Delicious Odors.”
Real-Life: New Luen Sing Fish Market (Stockton St.) and/or M.P. Seafood Market (Jackson St.), San Francisco, CA. Well, this one’s a tossup. But between these two famous San Francisco markets, both fit the bill for the author’s description of “The Fish Shop of the Delicious Odors” in the novel. The first, New Luen Sing, includes the name mentioned in the story (Sing Gow), while the second, M.P. Seafood, is on the correct street (Jackson St.) Which could it be? Both would have been there when Biggers penned the novel (1926). Maybe he combined them? Or, perhaps he got them confused, streetwise or name wise? Still, it’s pretty clear that one, the other, or both were the market place Biggers used as his “Fish Shop of the Delicious Odors!” (Photos: Infousa)
So, are you still with me? I know that took some stamina! These interesting comparisons have always fascinated me. I’m glad you could join me to examine a few of the many, many notes I’ve collected, surrounding the literary side of the Charlie Chan legacy. It was in literature, where Biggers’ detective Charlie Chan first touched the hearts and minds of readers. And this is just my humble way to acknowledge the author and his famous detective. Thank you for joining me. I’ll try to shorten it a bit, next time! (smile)