Earl Derr Biggers

Charlie Chan is Born

Any study of Charlie Chan must begin with author Earl Derr Biggers, who brought the exploits of the great detective to life in 1925.  Biggers stated on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his graduation from Harvard University in 1932, “I am quite sure that I never intended to travel the road of the mystery writer.  Nor did I deliberately choose to have in the seat at my side, his life forever entangled with mine, a bland and moon-faced Chinese.  Yet here I am, and with me Charlie Chan.  Thank heaven he is amiable, philosophical–a good companion.  For I know now that he and I must travel the rest of the journey together.”1

Earl Derr Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio on August 26, 1884.  Years later, while attending Harvard University, Biggers showed little passion for the classics, preferring instead writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Richard Harding Davis.  Following his graduation from Harvard in 1907, he worked briefly for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and at Bobbs-Merrill publishers.  By 1908, Biggers was hired at the Boston Traveler to write a daily humor column.  Soon, however, he became that paper’s drama critic.  It was at this time that he met Eleanor Ladd, who would later become his wife and who would have a marked influence on his writing.

Biggers’ blunt drama reviews offended many, and when the Boston Traveler was purchased by new owners his days at the publication were numbered, and by 1912, he was fired.  This apparent setback afforded Biggers the opportunity to write his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate which was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1913.  The book was very well received, resulting in his gaining national recognition as a writer.  The inevitable financial rewards of his success allowed him and Eleanor to marry.  George M. Cohan bought the dramatic rights to the book and produced a Broadway play that enjoyed a lengthy run.  The popularity of Biggers’ first novel was to continue through five different film versions spanning thirty years.  His next books, Love Insurance (1914) and The Agony Column (1916) continued his success as a novelist.

Love Insurance led to another popular play, See-Saw.  It was during this time that Biggers became increasingly involved with stage productions.  However, the workload demanded of a successful playwright began to drain the author physically.  In need of an escape to a more temperate climate, Biggers and Elanor visited Hawaii in 1920 for sun and relaxation.  It was while on vacation in Honolulu that the seeds were planted in the mind of Earl Derr Biggers for a new kind of hero.

“It all began so innocently,” related Biggers.  “A little trip to Honolulu, a harmless loitering on the beach at Waikiki.  Then, some years later, in the fall of 1924, the decision to write a mystery novel about Hawaii, based on a plot that had occurred to me while I was over there.  But my memories of the islands were rather dim; I dropped into a library to brighten them a bit by a perusal of recent Honolulu newspapers.  In an obscure corner of an inside page, I found an item to the effect that a certain hapless Chinese, being too fond of opium, had been arrested by Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook, of the Honolulu Police.”2 

So, with that, Sergeant Charlie Chan had arrived; a character that was very unique to American mystery readers in the mid-1920s. The idea of a Chinese detective who would be portrayed in a very positive light was a major departure from the prevailing attitude of the time.  Biggers later stated, “I had seen movies depicting and read stories about Chinatown and wicked Chinese villains, and it struck me that a Chinese hero, trustworthy, benevolent, and philosophical, would come nearer to presenting a correct portrayal of the race.”3

On January 24, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post carried the first installment of The House Without a Key, a story that was soon published by Bobbs-Merrill as a hard-cover novel.  In this book, detective Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department works to solve a murder committed at a beach house in Honolulu.  In the story, John Quincy Winterslip, a young Bostonian (recalling, no doubt, Biggers’ earlier years in that city) provides the romantic interest for the daughter of a prime suspect, as well as investigative assistance to Mr. Chan.

The enthusiastic public reception of Charlie Chan led Biggers to move with his wife to Pasadena, California to enjoy the warm climate and to write the next Charlie Chan story, The Chinese Parrot, which was published in 1926.  The eager reception of this novel by the public prompted The Saturday Evening Post to pay Biggers $25,000 for a serialized version of his third Charlie Chan story, Behind That Curtain. After the publication of this book in 1928, Biggers returned to Honolulu, staying at the newly opened Royal Hawaiian Hotel where he met Chang Apana,4 presenting him with an autographed copy.

The first two stories had been made into silent movies, and in 1929, Fox Film Corporation paid the writer a handsome sum for the rights to the third Chan novel which would be a “talkie” with Charlie Chan paying only a minor role as had been the case in previous adaptations of Biggers’ stories. 

Biggers became fearful that the immense popularity of the Chinese detective would make it virtually impossible for him to write any other types of stories.  In 1929, as Biggers was contemplating a non-Chan novel, the stock market crashed.  The uncertainties of the economy dictated that he go with a proven product.  The result was The Black Camel, his fourth Charlie Chan story.

In 1930, Bobs-Merrill released Biggers’ fifth Chan novel, Charlie Chan Carries On.  As they had with Behind That Curtain, Fox bought the rights to this story as well. Unlike the previous movie, this film would prominently feature the Chinese detective, casting Warner Oland in the role.  The film, released in 1931, was an immediate success, prompting Fox to purchase the rights to The Black Camel which opened only four months later, continuing the on-screen success of Charlie Chan.

The Keeper of the Keys (1932), the sixth Charlie Chan story, would be Biggers’ final novel.  Oddly, although this story was to make it to the stage, it would not be made into a movie.  The play opened on October 18, 1933, closing early the next month. While the rather short run of this stage version of Biggers’ book may have been a reason that Fox did not buy the rights, Biggers did see the studio make Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932), which was loosely based on Behind That Curtain.

Earl Derr Biggers died of a heart attack on April 5, 1933.  Warner Oland, who, interestingly, had never met Biggers, expressed his sincere regret at the passing of the writer who brought Charlie Chan to life.  Biggers’ six Charlie Chan novels have continued to hold their own amongst mystery lore for several generations, and the exploits Earl Derr Biggers’ famous Chinese detective will doubtless continue to grip the imaginations of mystery movie enthusiasts for many years to come.

1 Greorich, Barbara, Harvard Magazine, March-April 2000.
2 Biggers, Earl Derr, Harvard Harvard College Class of 1907 Twenty-fifth Anniversary Report, June 1932.
3 Greorich, Harvard Magazine.
4 Steven Fredrick.