Unlock Charlie Chan’s “House Without A Key”

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While it’s not exactly a pulp genre book, Comics on the Brain just had to buy “The House Without A Key: A Charlie Chan Mystery” when we saw it on the book shelf last year.

The new edition is a softcover priced at $14.95 by Academy Chicago Publishers and is a quick and compelling read at 286 pages.

What makes this book special is that it is the introduction of the Charlie Chan character, who would quickly move from novels to movies. It was in film — or rather Saturday afternoon TV —  that CotB first encountered Chan. It wasn’t an instant love by any means, but he was an entertaining guy.

The real interest in Chan developed years later when CotB found out that Charlie Chan movies were banned from release on VHS and DVD. The studios apparently refused to do it because the Chan movies were determined to be culturally insensitive toward Asians. We certainly understand that concern, but at the same time people need to understand that releasing 70-year-old movies isn’t exactly going to create a cultural revolution.

In the last few years, the studios that made the Charlie Chan movies have reversed course, and CotB is now the proud owner of eight or nine of the flicks, and we were thrilled by each one.

Probably along the same time the films were re-released, someone over at Academy Chicago Publishers said “Hey, let’s release some of the original Charlie Chan novels!” And I’m glad they did.

“House Without A Key” is set in the pre-WWII Honolulu and Earl Derr Biggers does a masterful job of setting a scene of the far-flung, disconnected getaway for Americans. In fact, along with Charlie Chan, John Quincy Winterslip and all the other characters in the book, the Noir-ified Hawaii has a central role. It in itself is one of the primary characters — its sultry nights, its grand hotels, its divide between white and non-whites and its long beaches. All those aspects play a part in “House Without a Key,” just like the one who “did it,” the investigators, the victim and all the other suspects.

Unlike most modern mystery novels, the action in “House” doesn’t hit the pace of a buffalo stampede. Instead, Biggers lets the entire book unspool at a leisurely pace. A murder happens, police investigate and a week or so later they have the wrong-doer.

But there isn’t any mass panic. There’s no desperate situation. It’s a mystery, not a thriller.
As for Chan himself, readers only meet him after the first third of the book is done.  If you’re not paying attention it seems that Chan’s a secondary character — a guy for the real investigator to bounce ideas off from — but shortly after he’s introduced, you’re eager to see more of him.

As the novel spins along, John Quincy Winterslip starts to work hand-in-hand with Chan and you start to see the cleverness of the character — the one who would charm future movie audiences. Soon you see the cagey Chan who plays things close to his sleeve. The guy who exudes humility in hope that his quarry slips. And yes, the guy who offers “fortune cookies” of wisdom that only make sense if you can back track on the context.

While the intriguing setting and Chan’s introduction are the most fun things about this book, there’s also something else. Unlike many novels and stories contemporary to “House Without a Key,” which was first published in 1925, this book reads like it was written yesterday. There aren’t any clunky turns of phrase. No excessive moralizing. This book is a smooth and entertaining read.

Your great grandparents would have enjoyed it in the 1920s and you can enjoy it right now.

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