Book Review: The Chinese Parrot by Earl Derr Biggers (1926)

Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) was an American author and playwright best known for creating the fictional character Charlie Chan, a Chinese-Hawaiian detective. Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University in 1907. After working as a journalist for several years, he turned to fiction writing and published his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, in 1913.

However, it was the publication of his novel The House Without a Key in 1925, featuring the character of Charlie Chan, that brought him widespread fame and success. Biggers went on to write five more Charlie Chan novels, which were adapted into numerous films, radio shows, and TV series over the years.

The Chinese Parrot is a mystery novel written by Earl Derr Biggers, and it was first published in 1926. It is the second novel in the Charlie Chan series, following The House Without a Key.


Sally Jordan, a beautiful but down-on-her-luck heiress, must sell her valuable pearl necklace to fund her wealthy lifestyle. She contacts her old friend, Alex Eden, to broker the sale of her necklace to Wall Street financier P. J. Madden. Madden, brash and incredibly security conscious, demands that the necklace is only to him in New York by the jeweler’s son Bob Eden and Sally Jordan’s friend, Charlie Chan.

After the sale is agreed to, Bob Eden is surprised to get a call from P.J. Madden insisting that the pearl necklace be delivered to him at his isolated ranch in the California desert. Immediately suspicious, Bob Eden gives the necklace to Charlie Chan for safekeeping, and they separately make their way to the ranch in case robbers are on their trail.

When Bob Eden arrives at the ranch, he can tell something is wrong. Still, he can’t put his finger on it and comes up with several subterfuges to deny giving P. J. Madden the necklace, which is aided by the fact that he doesn’t have it with him. As he uneasily settles into life on the ranch, he begins to piece together that a murder has been committed in the house. His only allies are the local newspaper editor, a lovely young woman scouting locations for a tv show in the area, and Charlie Chan.

Charlie Chan has gone undercover in the house as the new cook. There he can talk to the other Chinese servants and observe P.J. Madden without arousing suspicion; when a parrot that lives with the servants begins to squawk about a murder in English and Chinese– Bob and Charlie’s worries rise. Charlie attempts to speak to the parrot, but within hours of its murder confession, it dies.

The other Chinese servant is knifed and killed before he can tell Charlie any information about the parrot, and Charlie and Bob Eden are now trapped in a house with at least one killer who will stop nothing to cover their crimes.

The Review

The Chinese Parrot is a masterclass in ratcheting tension and suspense. Trapped in a ranch with a gun collector in the middle of the California desert with few allies really sucked me, and I was reading with rapt attention. Bob Eden, our protagonist, was a bit bland (he’s not as engaging and well-drawn as John Quincy Winterslip in Charlie Chan’s first mystery, The House Without A Key). Still, I think he perfectly explores what an “average Joe” would do if dropped into a possible murder coverup operation. Bob Eden is not brilliant or a good detective, but he is curious and committed to discovering the truth.

Thankfully he is aided by the wise and patient Charlie Chan. Charlie Chan slowly and methodically unravels the many crimes at P. J. Madden’s ranch by being an attentive listener and unobtrusilvely studying the behaviours of everyone in the household.

Disguised as the cook, he is almost a non-entity, a servant who doesn’t speak or understand English proficiently. Charlie Chan plays into the more prominent stereotypes that his white employer thinks about Chinese people and uses them to his advantage. Charlie Chan complains bitterly several times to Bob Eden about the debasement of himself and other Chinese people by P. J. Madden and the broader white culture and how it is dehumanizing. Charlie does not like playing a cook because that is what white people expect of him. However, he says speaking exaggerated pidgin English is the most critical part of this situation. Earl Derr Biggers uses Charlie’s new position to discuss the treatment and stereotypes surrounding Chinese Americans in California and Hawaii. Charlie Chan is afforded a somewhat better job in Hawaii due to his profession, the sheer amount of Chinese Americans, and Hawaii’s relatively more relaxed attitudes towards race. There’s a lot to unpack and ponder about race in The Chinese Parrot, and I think it makes the book even more enjoyable.

That’s not to say the book is about race or that race is the book’s central theme. The book is principally about murder, gunslingers, and greed. It definitely has more of a western feel than The House Without a Key, which is a mystery, but also a love letter to Hawaii. The Chinese Parrot is bolstered by loving descriptions of California’s wide-open freedom and beauty. There is another hopelessly romantic love affair involving Bob Eden, which is sweet and relieves the unrelenting tension of what is happening at the ranch.

The mystery is well-plotted and is very difficult to solve. I had the mechanics of the crime figured out by the end-but, totally the wrong characters committing the crime. The climactic ending blew me away and was fun and totally over the top. I highly recommend The Chinese Parrot; you can get a copy from Amazon here.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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