Sunday, August 01, 2010

Behind That Curtain: Number Three novel about Number One father

Behind That Curtain is the third book featuring what may be the most famous crime fiction character of whom I had not read a word of any work in which he appears: Charlie Chan.

Chan starred in six novels by Earl Derr Biggers between 1925 and 1932 and was a fixture in a long list of movies as well. Here are two excerpts from an unusually informative Wikipedia introduction to Charlie Chan, the latter of which justifies the character's inclusion on this site:

"Biggers conceived of the benevolent and heroic Chan as an alternative to Yellow Peril stereotypes, such as villains like Fu Manchu."
and

"Chan is a detective of the Honolulu police, though many stories feature Chan traveling the world as he investigates mysteries and solves crimes."

Despite his origin as a counter to odious Asian stereotypes, Mystery Readers Journal's two issues on "The Ethnic Detective" in 2007 included articles called "Farewell Charlie Chan: A Selected History of the Asian American Detective" and "The Post-Charlie Chan Era."

What other fictional detectives were progressive for their time but seem less so now?

***

The opening pages of Behind That Curtain show that detective-story writers were already poking explicitly self-referential fun at detective-story conventions as early as 1928, with the rationalistic Holmes/Thorndyke-type stories a special target. ("Except for the fingerprint system and work in the chemical laboratory on stains, scientific research has furnished little assistance to crime detection.") The character who speaks those words is an English detective, by the way, which may be of interest.

The Black Mask era was kicking into high gear at the time. Perhaps Biggers in his own way shared the restlessness with the traditional detective story that drove Hammett, Chandler and others.

Me, I like the first full sentence on Behind That Curtain's second page:

"Even the copy desk was deserted."
(Academy Chicago has reissued all six Charlie Chan novels. Here's a bit about Behind That Curtain from the publisher's Web site.

(This just in: Read about "The Man Behind Chan" at The Rap Sheet.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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39 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazon has all six Charlie Chan novels in a collection for Kindle at the price of $6.99. The title is "Charlie Chan Complete Bundle".

michael

August 02, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I have a couple of Charlie Chan DVD box-sets, but I've only watched one of the films to date, and I haven't read any of the stories.

And its not because of any political incorrectness, but I found that I much preferred the 'Mr Moto' films, starring Peter Lorre
(not to mention the 'Thin Man' series, and the 'Michael Shayne' series, starring Lloyd Nolan)

I'm sure I'll get around to watching the remainder of them, some day.

August 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, you sure are revisiting those thrilling days of yesteryear, TCK.

If nothing else, this post may serve as a reminder that the Charlie Chan character was born in a novel. Your mention of The Thin Man is apt, since that, too, was grew into a series in which the number of movies far outstripped the number of books. (And I know I don't need to remind you that, movie titles notwithstanding, Nick Charles was not The Thin Man!)

In any case, the Charlie Chan movie series has a social history all its own. An approving reference to one of its incarnations says that it restored the edge that had been present in the novels.

August 02, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, all of the CC novels are online for $0.00. (Who needs and e-reader). I've always meant to read an EDB. Suppose I'll have to now.

That Wikipedia article was interesting. Hollywood first tried two Japs and then a Korean in the role before they decided what they really needed was a Swede. Those Hollywood types are so slow, sometimes.

I regret to inform you that I have seen the 1980 film where Peter Ustinov plays CC. If you thought a Swede was bad in the role, get a load of Ustinov. Or better still, don't.

Still, the movie is a good example of my theory that if the titles are bad, then the movie will be even worse.

August 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One generally refers to Japanese people as Japanese rather than Japs, these days; the term smacks of a racial gibe here in America. Just so you know.

But yes, the point is well taken. Apparently the Charlie Chan movies did not do big business until the Swedish Warner Oland was given the role. Even if one knows nothing else about the movies in question (maybe the early ones were crap), that fact ought to lead to speculation about the American movie-going public was willing to accept.

That title does not exactly promise a subtle comedy of manners, does it?

Last thing I remember seeing Ustinov in was "Topkapi." I found his performance hard to take.

August 02, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

One generally refers to Japanese people as Japanese rather than Japs, these days; the term smacks of a racial gibe here in America. Just so you know.

Apologies, Peter, for such an unforgivalble lapse in taste.

Henceforth, the following terms shall be expunged from my vocabulary: Canucks, Yanks, Brits, Prods, Papists, Frogs, Huns, Eye-Ties and, well, I'll think of more later.

In the meantime, I'll apply fifty lashes to my back, say a hundred Hail Marys and bow down two hundred times to the God of Political Correctness.

I realize this is insufficient redress on my part but hey, I'm only human.

Is this response overkill, or is that just my imagination?

August 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I apologize for such apalling oversensitivity. But you see, in today's media market, where anyone anywhere can see anything, one must, more than ever before, strive to offend no one. Hell, it works for Google.

August 02, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I understand your sensitivity. There's no doubt that the term 'Japs' was used as a racial slur. And even today use of the term generates a lot of noise and accusations of racism. My own internal censor set off a few alarm bells while I was typing it. But I thought it would be rather prissy not to use it.

My use of the term was a shorthand for Japanese. I think and I hope that usage is becomming the more common one.

Not that I care a lot. The Japanese can take care or themselves. It's not like they're some downtrodden minority: the question of racial slurs is a lot more problematic in that area.

August 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, the context made it clear you were being jocose. But that's one area where caution pays, unless one is writing a book, or something.

Hell. just about every Irishman I know calls himself a Mick, but I'd feel funny using the term myself, so I call every Irishman I know an Irishman.

Double hell, even the -man word is problematic, isn't it? A commentator here in America once noted that some people consider the word Chinaman demeaning -- even though it apparently is an exact translation of the term with which a Chinese person will refer to himself.

August 04, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

A couple items:

Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote the books, was more in love with Hawaii than with his plots or his main character, Check out his first four or five books, including THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY, a moniker which has been "acquired" by the Halekulani Hotel. I love the Hawaii he saw back in the 1920s. Oh boy. Also, Biggers was a New York playwright who made his earliest money by being the inventor of ... are you ready ... the inventor of the plot "an author spends the night in this spooky creepy mansion." Yes, he wrote SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE MOUNTAIN. (It's in Maine.) Seven movies, btw, were made of this play, I believe. Earl Derr Biggers was quite an interesting guy. I believe he died young.

August 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chan is in San Francisco yearning to return to Hawaii for the birth of his eleventh child in "Behind That Curtain," so I don't know how much of his home state I'll get to see. And here's a bit more about Earl Derr Biggers. Thanks.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous Fred zackel said...

Thanks, Peter. I followed your link and, yes, i learned more about the guy. Dead at 48? Whew. Unfair. (As has his treatment by most of the critics of the past fifty years.)

August 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect some people conflate Charlie Chan and Doctor Fu Manchu, which would be unfortunate, given Biggers' intention in creating the character.

August 05, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Good to see this discussion on terminology, especially since I just saw a movie, "Across the Pacific," with "The Maltese Falcon," trio of Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet. It was so full of anti-Japanese stereotypes it was hard to watch.

Ir was made in 1942, hence the war effort and movies reflected the time.

And this was a bit hard to take: Near the end, Bogart, with a machine gun, single-handedly killed every single person who was fighting for the Japanese in Panama (in this scenario), shot down a torpedo-filled plane, arrested Greenstreet and won over Astor.

But I guess in 1942 it helped the war effort.

Anyway, just a question re: the above discussion: Do you ever refer to an Irish woman or to Irish people or to "the Irish"?

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It helped the war effort, and, most important, Bogart was a Hollywood movie star, so of course he could kill everyone, shoot down a place, and win the girl.

And yes, it reflected the time.

Another thing about demeaning racial and ethnic terms: I quoted a passage from James Ellroy's novel "White Jazz" recently, a mock scandal-sheet article that was full of such terms about Mexicans. But that article was far more direct about the miserable plight of these particular Mexicans thatn were comparable mock articles from the politer, mainstream newspapers.

I guess the point is that while such terms may make us feel uncomfortable, one ought to think about the context before condemning them.

I'll generally say "He's Irish." I suppose as a shorthand I'll think of "the Irish" the same way as I'd use "the Americans," as in "France and Germany favored stricter regulations, but the Americans argued for an open marketplace."

August 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, but I was just wondering how Irish women are referred to in general, as they're half the population, I'd guess.

I can hear that about terminology by writers, who are conveying certain attitudes but who are really opposed to mistreatment.

But everyone has to read what they want to and can tolerate. Some people can put up with more than others.

What is aggravating sometimes is when a news station, in quoting someone, will blank out the curse words, but put in the derogatory words, as if one is worse than the other and more tolerable.

In fact, one is expressing anger, the other a derogatory view of a group of people.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the Irish women I know tend to be married to Irish men, who generally refer to their wives in only the most complimentary terms.

I have not read much crime fiction in which anyone would have had occasion to refer to Irish people in dergotatory terms, but I did notice one interesting instance in a recording of the great Irish folk song ”Rocky Road to Dublin”.

In one verse, the protagonist "took a drop of the pure to keep my heart from sinking / That's the paddy's cure whenever he's on drinking." Irish singers always read the line that way, in my experience, with paddy. But a fine Serbian band called Orthodox Celts changes the line to "That's an Irish cure." I assumed this was because a non-Irish singer didn't want to use a term some might regard as derogatory.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though Orthodox Celts do retain paddy in a later verse, so who knows? Maybe they were just reluctant to associate paddy with the Irish stereotype of drinking.

August 08, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Glad to hear that about how Irish men refer to their spouses.

And the change from "paddy" to "Irish," although I wonder if I should worry about the stereotypes of Irish people drinking...surely many don't. I think many women don't but surely many men don't.

My own Irish side of the family does not drink, although some are addicted to other things: mysteries, television, sports (viewing, not doing); some--smoking (years ago), religion, crossword puzzles, the Clancy Brothers.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, many don't, but the stereotype surely is present and probably was even at the time of "Rocky Road to Dublin"'s composition.

Religion would figure among stereotypical Irish addictions, and I suppose the Clancy Brothers would, too, for the generation just before mine. I prefer the Dubliners, though, at least when Luke Kelly was singing.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Religion, even a "mixed marriage," by some distant relatives, one was Catholic, the other Protestant. A comedian whose You Tube link was posted on this blog did a hilarious bit about that topic. I'd love to find that again.

Those relatives of mine fought every day about this for 50 years.

Mysteries was definitely a habit and still is, only very particular types, especially clever, locked-room ones--John Dickson Carr, etc. I have to do my heritage justice and read a bunch of his. (Sjowall/Wahloo's "The Locked Room," is quite unique.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember that clip. I also heard a joke a man who is stopped by paramilitaries in Belfast who demand: "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?"

"I'm a Jew!"

"A Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?"

I would like to see what a sharp, politically engaged pair of crime novelists like Sjowall and Wahloo would do with a locked-room story. I was surprised when reading their first novel, Roseanna, not by their critique of the cracks in the welfare state, but rather by how brilliantly they could write suspense.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

That is very funny about Catholic or Protestant Jews. I'll have to figure out whom I can pass that to.

Sjowall and Wahloo did write a locked-room mystery, "The Locked Room." It's very complex with a few different plot lines, but the locked room part is quite clever. I try to figure these things out but I did not guess this solution.

August 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew of Sjowall and Wahloo and their toweing reputation long before I ever read their work. That reputation did not prepare me for their interest and proficiency in such time-honored crafts as the suspense scene and the locked-room mystery.

August 11, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Read it. I suggest everyone read "The Locked Room" by Sjowall/Wahloo.

It's quite a plot, very clever indeed, almost like a Vargas as it goes all over the place and then returns to the basic characters and crimes. But it takes the long route.

August 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And it probably showed that there was life left in one of mystery's oldest and most contrived types of stories as well.

August 11, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, definitely there was life left in the locked-room mystery by Sjowall and Wahloo and so cleverly done. They must have mulled this with each other for hours, done calculations, maybe even staged a part of it.

Who knows? But they must have had a lot of fun figuring it out and then fitting it into the overall zany plot in that book.

August 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Their respect for and facility with crime-fiction tradition never -- I mean, never -- comes up in casual discussion of Sjowall and Wahloo.

August 11, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

So is this blog breaking new ground insofar as Sjowall and Wahloo are concerned?

Their locked-room mystery is quite well calculated. I encourage all to read it.

I can't compare it to John Dickson Carr, who was a favorite among my family, but I haven't read any of his books. And I gather he's the top locked-room writer, having thought up and written about many solutions to this puzzle.

The only author of reknown whom I've read other than Sjowall and Wahloo, with a locked-room mystery, was Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue," and one of Conan Doyle's. I think it was "The Case of the Speckled Band," but that was decades ago.

August 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's the point of my surprise that Sjowall and Wahloo took on a locked-room mystery: Look at those other names you mentioned. The first Sherlock Holmes storey appeared in, I think, 1887, and Carr's msaterpiece appeared in 1935. Then think of what associations come up when someone mentions Sjowall and Wahloo: Modern. Leftist. Social criticism. I think they're critical darlings because of their politics, but it's less-often mentioned that they also wrote fine mysteries and in the most traditional of genres, no less.


The blog broke bew ground when I wrote about "Roseanna" some time back. It was the first novel of Sjowall and Wahloo's that I had read.

August 12, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Okay, yes, agree with your first paragraph.

They are the grandparents of current Swedish (might we say Scandinavian?)
crime fiction. I think Stieg Larsson comes closest to their style and scope but his are more violent actually.

Maybe Sjowall and Wahloo are getting new attention and new readers now due to the Scandinavian sensation. I hope so.

Vintage's new reissue should help with that.

August 12, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Henning Mankell cites Sjowall and Wahloo as an influence, just as some current Swedish crime writers cite Mankell. And Mankell wrote the introduction to one of the novels in the excellent reissue of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck mysteries.

I don't think Stieg Larsson, had he lived to be 1,000 years old, could ever have written as well as Sjowall and Wahloo did in "Roseanna," and that's not necessarily a knock on Larsson.

I don't know if I'd expand "Swedish" to include "Scandinavian." Jo Nesbo, who is Norwegian, says he likes American authors and also Nordic writers such as Hamsun and Ibsen, but I don't know who Nordic crime writers from outside Sweden cite as their crime-writing inflences.

August 12, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, I did know that Mankell cited Sjowall and Wahloo and I know that he resembles their sweeping overview and analysis of society.

I haven't read enough of Mankell's books to compare, although "The Man from Beijing," was quite good in many respects.

I don't think Stieg Larsson was a great writer; that isn't his appeal, I don't think. I liked his trilogy but not because I thought his writing technique was superb. That's why I thought as far as writing went that Indridason should have won the Dagger. (I hadn't read Theorin's book.)

Larsson was a good storyteller, a gripping plotter, with an epic focus and some interesting characters. He said a lot and wrote a good page-turner with social commentary.

Were there known Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic mystery writers comparable to Sjowall and Wahloo when they wrote?

I thought they had influence broader than only Sweden--in that area of the world, using the term broadly.

August 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know the history of Sjowall and Wahloo's critical reception -- when they were first translated and into what languages, and how and when their repuration spread in the English-speaking world. I do know that that reputation is awfully high. They are among the more respected and highly thought of crime writers of the late twentieth century.


Mankell was one of the first "international" crime writers I read. His novel "Firewall" especially integrated small-city crime and global crime in an adventurous way.

August 13, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I want to add also that "The Locked Room," by Sjowall and Wahloo is very funny, the plot, several of the characters, including some zany crooks.

I went back and read the posts in January about these esteemed writers of crime fiction, including about "Roseanna," and it was interesting.

I now think I must purchase the Vintage reissue of this book with Mankell's introduction, as my library does not have this version.

There is a lot to comment on about it but I won't since it was all discussed thoroughly, but I think Hammett was principled in his beliefs and actions.


And by just reading a few blogs on the Web, it does seem as if Stieg Larsson was influenced by the dynamic writing duo, and that their influence went beyond Sweden.

Also, I agree about Salander's revenge. It's quite powerful in the movie of TGWTDT even though the brutality is like a cyclone.

August 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, it will do readers good to see that Swedish authors can be funny.

I've read the first of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck mysteries. I think I may try to read the series in order to see how some of the themes I noticed in the first book play out.

August 13, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Good idea to read them in order. Characters are added, Beck's personal life changes.

August 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll also be alert to how they make use of older crime-fiction conventions less as the series progresses.

August 13, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It'll be interesting to see what you say about the series as you read them.

Just my luck: Checked Vintage's "Roseanna" at Amazon and it's a bit under $8. Since I'm ordering several books, there will be free shipping so I'm definitely buying it--and can then loan it out, always a plus. And I want to read Mankell's introduction.

August 13, 2010  

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