“Where were you the night of August 26, 1884?” Personally, to borrow a line from Nora Charles, The Thin Man, 1934, “I was just a twinkle in my father’s eye.” (Though in my case it would be my grandfather’s eye!) In 1920, while vacationing in Honolulu, Hawaii, Author Earl Derr Biggers thought of the perfect way to commit a murder. Five years later, Chinese-Hawaiian Detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police emerged on the scene. Chan began merely as a secondary character (or deuteragonist) in The House Without a Key (1925); however, the public demanded to hear more of this colorful character! So Biggers produced a sequel, The Chinese Parrot (1926). Then, with even greater success of this second novel, four more stories followed for a series: Behind that Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), and Keeper of The Keys (1932). And after that sixth novel Biggers died at only 48 yrs old of a heart attack.
Still, with only six novels to his name Biggers’ Detective (later Inspector) Chan acquired international fame! The novels were published in over 20 languages and there were over 40 films: not the made for TV kind, but for “The Silver Screen” in theaters around the nation and abroad! Then, followed a nationally syndicated comic strip, radio broadcasts, board and card games, comic books, a British television series, an American cartoon show, restaurants, and more. In his heyday, Detective Charlie Chan’s popularity was on par with Superman and Micky Mouse. All stemming from six novels!
So how about it—a celebration for Earl’s 135 year? If you are so inclined, here are ten ways to celebrate one of America’s earliest authors of mystery fiction. An author who stepped outside the box and brought American readers their first taste of the mysterious Hawaiian Islands. And a Sleuth, who was kind, intelligent, a family man, and solved crimes with his brain—and as Charlie would say, “A little luck!”
FIRST UP: for the “Armchair Detective,” who’d rather solve crimes comfortably:
1. Read Biggers’ first successful novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913). Earl Derr Biggers had many other successes as both a playwright and author, most prominent his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, a mystery set in a mountain lodge in the dead of winter. Biggers penned “Baldpate” long before he created Charlie Chan, and it had great success on Broadway, in theaters, and gained national recognition. There were seven films based on the novel from 1913 to 1983. You’ll find a copy of Seven Keys to Baldpate at http://wildsidepress.com/authors-a-f/biggers-earl-derr/.
2. Cozy up to one of the six original Charlie Chan novels. After all, there were only six before Biggers’ untimely death at just 48 years old in 1933. While stand-alone novels, they do follow sequence should you care to read them in order. Newer reprints are available from Chicago Academy Publishers via most bookstores and print on demand from https://www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ (search on Charlie Chan.) And used copies out there from the usual suspects (Amazon, Ebay, etc.).
3. Try a more recent Chan-related book release. Ninety-plus years after the first novel, readers are still captivated by Charlie Chan; one of America’s first home-grown detectives of mystery fiction. Here are three, which came out last year in 2018: Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers (Gregorich, Barbara); The Charlie Chan Films (Neibaur, James L.); Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s (Klinger, Leslie S.). Take a peek at The Charlie Chan Family Home “Library,” for a list of over 30 Chan-related books and publications to enjoy.
4. Enjoy a Charlie Chan film. This could take a while. With originally over 47 in the film proper, a few are “lost films” destroyed by fire (so they are out.) However, the majority have been reissued on DVD and Video by 20th Century Fox, MGM, & Warner Studios. There’s even a 39-episode British-American television series, The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1957-58), and two later made for TV movies (like, The Return of Charlie Chan  starring Ross Martin.) You can watch at least 34 of the original films free online at Youtube.com by searching “Charlie Chan films.” For a special treat (you’ll need to leave the chair) keep your eye on the Old Town Music Hall, El Segundo, CA. Not far from Los Angeles, they’ve been showing vintage silent and sound films since 1968 and invariably a Chan film will make their Schedule. “Hey, pass the popcorn and crackerjacks!”
5. See Charlie Chan solve a case in the Sunday Comics! On October 30, 1938, a nationally syndicated weekly-comic strip featuring Charlie Chan made its debut in newspapers across the United States and Canada. Drawn by noted artist Alfred Andriola, the series lasted for nearly four years ending on May 31, 1942. Today, Webmaster Rush Glick recreates this nostalgic entertainment, re-posting these delightful vintage comics, Sundays, for your viewing pleasure on his website: The Charlie Chan Sunday Comics. Current the weekly-series will run through completion on May 20, 2021. Then, after a short four-month hiatus, it starts back up again each Sunday (beginning October 2021) and runs straight through another 3 years and 7 months. Move over Mary Worth; Charlie’s back in town!
NEXT: for those “Hands-on Sleuths,” who like to visit the scene of the crime:
6. Take a road trip to Earl Derr Biggers’ hometown, Warren Ohio. https://www.exploretrumbullcounty.com/things-to-do/towns/warren/. This quaint picturesque town in Trumbull County along the Mahoning River has many small museums, markets and shops and a very popular outdoor Ampitheater with seating for 3000. A stop at Warren’s main library to view the United for Libraries, “Literary Landmark” honoring author and playwright Earl Derr Biggers is a must. View the plaque and description of the dedication, which took place on September 23, 2017 at: http://www.ala.org/united/products_services/literarylandmarks/landmarksbyyear/2017/biggers. And for a diversion coming or going, situated just about half-way between Cleveland and Warren, OH, on US Rt 422, is the Welshfield Inn (est. 1842), Burton, Ohio. In the heart of Amish country it features seasonal fare in a historic building that’s been around more than a century! One can’t help wonder if the Biggers’ family didn’t enjoy a meal there on occasion? “Look! is that Earl’s figure sitting in that dark corner?” http://thedriftwoodgroup.com/restaurants/welshfield-inn/
7. Stay at the Baldpate Inn, Estes Park, CO. Named in honor of Biggers’ first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913), the Baldpate Inn is now in it’s 102d year as a Bed & Breakfast, offering theater events, hikes, and packages (like their Seven Keys 2019 Mystery Club Book Package”.) Biggers’ novel was nationally successful and Gordon and Ethel Mace named their 1918 Colorado lodge after the mystery novel. Biggers actually visited once and gave his stamp of approval, declaring it so much like his imaginary inn that it well deserved the title. Following the tradition of Biggers novel, the landlords would give out keys to all guests until the outbreak of WWI, when metal became very precious. So loyal guests decided to keep the tradition going by bring the landlords a key instead! Today, they hold the worlds largest key collection, boasting some 20,000-plus keys from around the world, including keys from the Pentagon, Westminster Abby, Mozart’s wine cellar, and even Frankenstein’s castle: http://www.baldpateinn.com/.
8. Visit the Honolulu Police Museum and “Chang Apana” Exhibit. Chang Apana’s legendary career as a police officer in Honolulu began in 1898. Though small in stature (5 feet tall) he was bigger than life and the only officer allowed to carry a bullwhip instead of a gun. His exploits attracted the attention of novelist Earl Derr Biggers, who is said to have modeled his character Charlie Chan after Detective Apana. Apana worked the Chinatown district, mainly investigating gambling and opium smuggling. Chief William Gabrielson credited Detective Apana’s ability to solve many cases to his fluency in Hawaiian and Cantonese, his wide network of informants, and his shrewd and meticulous detective style. During his career, he was stabbed six times, thrown out a second-story window; and run over with a horse and buggy. Still, each time he managed to apprehend his suspect. The museum has many other historical police exhibits, and it’s easy to spend two or three hours viewing them: HPD Police Museum.
9. Take the Charlie Chan Mystery Tour (August) or The Chang Apana Chinatown Tour (December). https://stevestoursandfilms.vpweb.com/. If you happen to be on the island of Oahu, try one of local historian Steve Fredricks’ Charlie Chan tours. Both, three-mile (four-hour) walking tours take you to sites associated with Charlie Chan in the old Chinatown neighborhood and piers adjacent to Honolulu Harbor. You’ll visit the various locations and buildings from the films and books, as well as places and events surrounding real-life detective Chang Apana, who’s exploits inspired Biggers’ fictional detective. Serving longer than anyone on the local police force, Detective Apana was one of the most colorful and best known characters in Honolulu. His achievements reached the attention of Earl Derr Biggers to work their way into his first Chan novel The House Without a Key, 1925. Steve is celebrating 12 years of his Hawaiian tours and historical films this year. These tours are great for “the bucket list” of any Charlie Chan fan worth his salt!
10. Visit the Halekulani Hotel’s beachside bar, appropriately named: House Without a Key. Enjoy a Mai Tai or their famed Coconut Cake with Raspberry Coulis at the House Without a Key ocean side restaurant-bar on Waikiki Beach. “Halekulani” translates to “place befitting heaven,” and once you’ve seen the view you’ll understand why! Named in honor of Biggers’ first novel, it is located on the very spot he and his family vacationed in 1920 (then Gray’s beach-side cottages) and which sparked the idea for that first novel. A Hawaiian slack-key guitar band, hula dancer, tropical drinks, palm trees swaying, and surfers and catamarans on the ocean are the view; all framed beneath a 100-year old Kiawe tree still there from the days when Biggers vacationed! Heck, “take the bottom out” and stay in The Halekulani Suite. Designer Vera Wang planned the décor for this 2000 sq ft of luxury. It rings in at a mere $4000 a night—but the view is “to die for!”
So there you have it! Plenty to do in celebration of Earl’s 135th birthday this month. I have some grandiose plans myself. However, first I need to figure out how I’m going to fit 135 candles on that Sara Lee pound cake I’ve been saving in the freezer?