Chang Apana: The Real-Life Charlie Chan
Humble apologies for going missing last week, but a major editing project turned out to be harder than expected: a 600-page book about Jesuit missionaries that was a whole lot more interesting than, say, The Mission, but burdened with 84 pages of bibliography and over a hundred pages of footnotes that had to be cross-referenced, line by line: By the time I was done, my brain felt like a bag of crushed peanuts.
But now you may all doff your sackcloth and ashes and rest your hoarse and sorrowful cries. I have returned to once more guide you to my snug—maybe a little too snug--cozy den of iniquitous vintage literature.
I finished reading that Charlie Chan mystery novel, The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers, I alluded to in a recent posting on the differences between reading literary and genre fiction. Verdict: Not bad. Not bad at all.
Most of us remember Charlie Chan from the forty-four movies that were produced during the 1930s and 1940s. You may also be aware of the modern controversy over their racism, most of it, as I see it, due to the failure of the studios to cast a Chinese-American actor in the role. (Come now: would that have been so hard?)
One main effect of the Charlie Chan movies seems to have been to bury the original novels in obscurity. This may be too bad. I read one of them, Behind That Curtain, too many years ago to reveal without embarrassment and now remember nothing about it. But The Black Camel does a much better job of sticking in the memory.
The Black Camel was published in 1931, and is set in late-1920s Honolulu, Hawaii. Taking a third-person point of view, Biggers sets the stage by gracefully introducing readers to the murder victim—a fading Hollywood star—and the large cast of suspects, most of whom have one motive or another for fading out her career even faster.
As in all mystery fiction, it’s the character of the problem solver who’s the draw, and problem solver Mr. Charlie Chan enters the mystery early on, fortunately. Said to be inspired by the real-life Chang Apana, (pictured above) a legendary detective in the Honolulu Police Department, the literary Chan is a true pip and stands favorably apart from the somewhat mummified Mandarin screen persona.
The literary Charlie Chan is as witty as he is wise and a little bit edgy, too. “By heaven,” one character melodramatically swears. “I’ll get him if it’s the last act of my life!” “I have similar ambition,” Chan drolly tells him, “though I trust the accomplishment will not finish off my existence.” The humor cuts others cruelly: “If you return with a pretty picture,” he seethes at a hapless assistant, “I will personally escort you back to private life.”
He’s also a man upon whose large shoulders the world hangs heavy. There’s no stereotypical serenity about him; his famous sense of humility also arises from his own errors—more literary detectives need to screw up from time to time--and his lot in life, as it comes from ideas about Chinese cultural tradition. Unlike a lot of fictional detectives, Charles Chan has a home life, but not necessarily a happy one: he's overwhelmed patriarch of a noisy, self-absorbed brood of a dozen-plus offspring that anyone who’s parented in the last eighty years might recognize. Like the fount of them all, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan finds true happiness only when he’s on the hunt.
Biggers creates a portrait of a brilliant man who is beset by serious anxiety attacks and doubts about his own considerable skills. Clearly, Charlie Chan is the smartest man in the Hawaiian Islands, but Biggers wisely makes sure that Chan himself doesn’t absolutely share that opinion and so keeps him human, rather than having him floats Buddha-like over everything. His humility, of course, also serves as a tool to dupe his quarry, who is revealed in a reasonably satisfying and surprising ending.
Biggers is not a racist. A remark about “a heathen race” inspires Charlie to sneer, “Yes, a heathen race that was inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were beating one another over head with spike clubs.” I did look in vain for any allusions to American colonialism (In fact, significantly, Native Hawaiians seem hardly to appear at all).
Well-crafted and entertaining as it is, The Black Camel doesn’t transcend its genre origins, though Chan’s character has more to him than most other fictional gumshoes of the era. The author’s description of 1920s Honolulu are aromatic, but he occasionally strains to gild those Hawaiian blossoms and it’s not a pretty sight. The dialogue, at times, is dated and execrable: True, Asian people may very well have spoken in pidgin English, but it still makes contemporary reading ears cringe. The story’s romantic leads are an annoying and cloying couple of white-bread gee-whizzers I hoped would either turn up dead . . . or turn out to be the bad guys.
Earl Derr Biggers wrote only six Charlie Chan novels before dying of a heart attack in 1933. The Black Camel is said to be among the best of them. But the most surprising aspect of this Grosset & Dunlap edition for me was this volume's its back pages. As it turns out, The Black Camel was not quite the rare first edition I’d hoped I’d snapped up cheap, but a reprint: the back matter catalogs many other books that were for sale, including the subsequent Chan novels. Most of the catalog listed writers long and profoundly forgotten—the Western novels for sale back then are mind-boggling: How could any bibliophile pass on William MacLeod Raine’s Oh, You Tex! and Chip of the Flying U by B. M. Bower? Hey! According to Albris Books, the second of those two lost classics is available for purchase! Now . . . how do I explain this one to Elizabeth?