Charlie Chan is, I’m guessing, the most famous Asian American in literature. But he’s known mostly from his movies. Between 1926 and 1949 some forty-five films featured the perspicacious detective from Honolulu. The number of Chan novels, however, is only six. Biggers began writing them in 1925, after a fairly successful career as a critic, playwright and mainstream novelist. He probably would have written more, but he died of a heart attack in 1933 at the age of forty-eight. Only one other Chan novel, Behind That Curtain (1928), is set primarily in California.
The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers. Bobbs-Merrill (1926), 316 pp.
Sally Jordan has left Hawaii to sell the Phillimore pearls, the last valuable piece of the family fortune. She turns to an old friend, San Francisco jeweler Alexander Eden, to negotiate the sale to a wealthy New York businessman, P. J. Madden. The deal can’t be closed because pearls are still en route. Sally has entrusted them to a former houseboy and present Honolulu police officer, Charlie Chan. Madden unexpectedly demands that they be delivered to him at his ranch near Barstow. When Chan arrives, Eden sends his son Bob south to complete the transaction. For security reasons, the jewels remain with Chan, who makes the trip disguised as an itinerant house servant. When the two show up at the ranch, their suspicions about Madden grow.
The main interest of the book, of course, lies in its portrayal of Charlie Chan, one of the world’s most famous literary detectives. He’s on his first trip to the mainland and is none too pleased with what he finds. The desert is uninviting, but it’s the racial discrimination that galls. Chan solves the crimes -- the first murder occurs almost as soon as he gets to the ranch -- with the sagacity that readers might expect. But he’s not the novel’s main character. The story revolves around Bob Eden, a more traditional literary protagonist, and is largely told from his point of view. As mysteries go, this one seems to have too many characters and not enough clues. Even so, fans of the genre are likely to enjoy it.