Book Review: The House Without A Key by Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan, 1)

In Charlie Chan’s first novel, The House Without A Key, published in 1925, readers get a window into 1920s Hawaii from its caucasian imperialist inhabitants. A romantic island remote from its neighbors slumber in the cool tradewinds painted by Earl Derr Biggers. Readers are lulled by the crashing waves and are welcomed by one of the richest men on the island Daniel Winterslip. A wealthy man from a prominent family in Boston, he is afforded respect by people who do not know him intimately. Daniel Winterslip is fighting with his brother Amos, is running from his blackbirding past, is hiding how he enmassed his fortune, and having an affair with an unsavory woman. When Daniel Winterslip is killed in his home, motives abound. He’s mourned chiefly by his cousin, Minerva Winterslip, and few others. John Quincy Winterslip sails to Hawaii to take his aunt Minerva home to Boston, but she refuses to leave until Daniel Winters lip’s murderer is caught. John Quincy Winterslip endeavors to help the investigating officer, Charlie Chan, find the killer, but he is over his head.

The Mystery

Daniel Winterslip is entertaining his cousin Minerva Winterslip during her ever-extending stay in Hawaii. Daniel, who has lived on the island since the 1840s after amassing a fortune, lives in a grand house staffed by a few local servants. Next door, in a modest dwelling, lives his embittered brother, Amos. The two brothers are happy to have their cousin visit, and Minerva laments that their estrangement saddens her; a resolute Amos rebuffs her small attempts to heal the rift. He knows that Daniel’s wealth was obtained by ill means, and he wants nothing to do with his brother. Minerva and Daniel await the arrival of John Quincy Winterslip with apathy. Minerva doesn’t want to return to Boston, and Daniel believes he can make them both stay. Daniel happily awaits the arrival of his daughter and hopes that all of them can live together on the island.  Daniel’s mood sours as the boat bearing John Quincy and his daughter sails nearer. He becomes frantic, tears out an advertisement from the newspaper, and writes a note to another relative in San Diego, California, with cryptic instructions. Soothed by his actions, Daniel Winterslip sits in his lanai and bids farewell to Minerva, who is visiting her friends for the evening. Minerva returns to the house late and silently moves through the darkened house until she discovers she is not alone. Someone with a broken illuminated watch dial is moving throughout downstairs. She fears it’s a burglar and slips upstairs to the servant’s quarter to get reinforcements. Together Minerva and the servants come downstairs, turn on the lights and find Daniel Winterslip stabbed to death. Minerva Winterslip calls the police, and Charlie Chan begins his investigation.

The Motives

On his way to Hawaii, John Quincy stops in San Francisco and is quickly uneasy. He must go with a relative he had just met to steal a box from a house. They enter the darkened house, alight to the attic, and find a box with the initials J.M.B. that John Quincy must bring to his uncle in Hawaii. While in the place, John Quincy fights a mysterious stranger and loses the box. He writes to Daniel Winterslip that he has failed to retrieve the package and tries to learn its importance. Through various family members and acquaintances, Daniel Winterslip learns that Daniel Winterslip was a blackbirder- a person who coerces people from their native land and sells them into slavery in another country during his time as a sailor. He also learns that he may have killed the captain of his blackbirding ship to steal his money. This is later confirmed when the son of J.M.B. is found on the island and becomes a suspect in Daniel Winterslip’s murder.

However, Daniel Winterslip’s death could be closer to home since he is cavorting with a known blackmailer on the island. When his unsavory lover is cornered at her house, she admits that she and her other lover bilk Daniel Winterslip for money and jewels, which they pawn for cash, liquor, and other nefarious goods. When a valuable necklace Daniel Winterslip had given his lover is found at the house, John Quincy believes she’s involved in the murder.

Charlie Chan investigates the Winterslip family and finds the many motives for killing Daniel Winterslip intriguing. He discovers that Daniel Winterslip is being blackmailed for his past misdeeds. Still, he quickly realizes that despite the many people trying to get Daniel Winterslip to pay for his crimes, he has easily evaded them, paid blackmail, and silenced his critics with current philanthropy. Whoever killed Daniel Winterslip might be hiding in the shadows and hoping past crimes would let him go free.

When John Quincy gets kidnapped by booze runners, Charlie Chan and the Winterslip family realize it was all a plot to get the Winterslip fortune by any means necessary.

The Verdict

One of the book’s best aspects is the ongoing discussion of the different social structures on the island. Poor Hawaiians, middle-class Chinese, and affluent Caucasians are cemented as the 1920s way of life and how this permeates all aspects of life. It is a sad snapshot of the colonization of Hawaii and its loss of a unique cultural identity. It would make a good movie for audiences today, and I am disheartened to learn both adaptations made during the 1920s and 1930s have been lost. Charlie Chan is a good detective, working in a world that denigrates him and puts him on a pedestal; this dichotomy makes him a fantastic study. There is a lot to unpack in this extraordinary novel. I highly recommend The House Without A Key.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s