Earl Derr Biggers (August 24, 1884 - April 5, 1933) was an American novelist and playwright best known through adaptations of his novels, especially those featuring the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan.
The son of Robert J. and Emma E. (Derr) Biggers, he was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University in 1907. He married Eleanor Ladd in 1912, and worked as a journalist in Boston. Many of his plays and novels were made into movies.
His novel Seven Keys to Baldpate led to seven films of the same title (each largely forgotten) and at least two with other titles but essentially equivalent plots. George M. Cohan (better known as a songwriter, and vaudeville and Broadway song-and-dance man) adapted the novel as a stage play, which undergoes occasional revivals as of the decade of the 2000s, and the film version he later screenwrote (released in 1935) is perhaps the least forgotten of the seven films. He is best known for the Charlie Chan novels. Chan is a fictional Chinese-Hawaiian detective reportedly created in part under inspiration from the career of Chang Apana. Chan is the hero of a number of books and dozens of movies. At first a sergeant (but later promoted) in the Honolulu Police Department, he and his wife have eleven children and live in a house on Punchbowl Hill. He is a large man but moves gracefully.
Biggers died of heart disease in Pasadena, California.
All the Charlie Chan novels, and other Biggers works, are available through Project Gutenberg and Gutenberg Australia.
Progress of the Chan literature
Charlie Chan appeared in six novels from 1925 to 1932. The first three novels were each adapted to film during the 1920s, by different studios, but the best-known Charlie Chan movies are those of the long-running series that began in 1931 with Charlie Chan Carries On, starring Warner Oland for Fox Film Corp. Oland starred in a further fifteen Chan movies, up to the time of his death, after which the mantle passed to Sidney Toler. By this time, Fox had merged and been succeeded by 20th Century Fox which, produced eleven more Charlie Chan films through 1942, but sold the rights to the series to Monogram Pictures in 1944. Monogram made another eleven Chan films starring Toler and then five starring Roland Winters after Toler's death. The progression of Chan films from Oland to Toler (under the two incarnations of Fox), and especially to Monogram's films (whether with Toler or Winters), involved poorer scripts and lower budgets, and generally less modern respect.
Mike Grost on Biggers
The first Charlie Chan novel of Earl Derr Biggers, The House Without a Key (1925), shows signs of the Realist school of detective fiction, especially Freeman Wills Crofts. It has a policeman as its detective hero. It has a well described Background of Hawaii. It also explores San Francisco in one section. The plot ultimately hinges on that Croftsian staple, the alibi, although there is no "breakdown of identity". And it follows realist tradition by sympathetically including a character of a minority race, the Chinese detective Charlie Chan. Chan is depicted in the book as a person of high intelligence, ability, and moral character, who is uniformly respected by everyone in the society around him. Biggers explicitly created his hero Chan as a reply to the racist Yellow Peril stories that were so popular in their era, with their Oriental villains scheming to take over the world. After years of cliched movie adaptations, Charlie Chan is now frequently considered a lamentable stereotype. I am certainly not defending some of the film versions of the character. But it seems inaccurate and unjust to judge the original books by later film versions. Biggers worked hard to shatter racist stereotypes and replace them by positive images of Chinese people. He deserves credit for this, not blame. Chan personally has to battle racial prejudice against Chinese in some of Biggers' books; a memorable example is found in Chapter 21 of The Chinese Parrot (1926).
Biggers' commitment to the Realist approach varies from novel to novel. It is strongest in The House Without a Key, more moderate in Behind That Curtain, and Keeper of the Keys, and weakest in The Chinese Parrot. Behind That Curtain opens with an explicit disavowal of the uses of science in detection, so if Biggers was influenced by Crofts, he had no interest in the scientific approach of R. Austin Freeman. The same opening discussion in Curtain also suggests that detective fiction bears little resemblance to real life police work; Biggers takes the Croftsian position that real life detection is largely dependent on a mixture of hard work and luck. This sort of self referential discussion of The Detective Story within a detective story has a long tradition in mystery fiction. The Chinese Parrot also contains several witty allusions to detective story conventions.
Howard Haycraft justly complained about the "mechanical" nature of Biggers' plot construction. The House Without a Key contains numerous subplots, rather arbitrarily sewn together. The best parts of the book are not the mystery plot or investigation, but the events leading up to the murder (Chapters 1 - 7). Similarly, the best parts of The Chinese Parrot are the first three chapters. In both novels, these opening sections contain the most important parts of the Background, and well done elements of intrigue and adventure.
The murder victim in Behind That Curtain (1928) leaves behind a non-verbal, symbolic clue that serves as a Dying Message. This convention would soon be used by Ellery Queen in numerous stories. I have no idea whether Biggers was the first mystery writer to use this device.
The Charlie Chan series
The House Without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1926)
Behind That Curtain (1928)
The Black Camel (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
Keeper of the Keys (1932)
Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913)
Love Insurance (1914)
Inside the Lines (1915) (with Robert Welles Ritchie)
The Agony Column (1916) (also published as Second Floor Mystery)
Fifty Candles (1926)
Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories (short stories) (1933)
All of Biggers's Chan mysteries are available as free downloads from Gutenberg Australia.
Earl Derr Biggers, (born Aug. 26, 1884, Warren, Ohio, U.S.—died April 5, 1933, Pasadena, Calif.), American novelist and journalist best remembered for the popular literary creation Charlie Chan. A wise Chinese-American detective on the Honolulu police force, Charlie Chan is the protagonist of a series of mystery detective novels that spawned popular feature films, radio dramas, and comic strips.
Biggers attended Harvard University (B.A., 1907) and became a journalist for the Boston Traveler. His successful mystery novelSeven Keys to Baldpate (1913) was adapted into a well-received play and a film. The six novels that feature Chan—The House Without a Key (1925), The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind That Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), and Keeper of the Keys (1932)—were all initially serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. Biggers’ other fiction includes the novels Love Insurance (1914), Inside the Lines (1915; with Robert Welles Ritchie), The Agony Column (1916), and Fifty Candles (1926), as well as the collection Earl Derr Biggers Tells Ten Stories (1933).