Friday, March 18, 2011

Charlie Chan

In the Introduction to Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby, Sarah Vowell wrote of reading The House Without a Key, the first book in the 6 book series by Earl Derr Biggers that features Chinese detective Charlie Chan. She writes, "It turned out to be both charming and suspenseful and by the way partially about racism, in that the citizens of prewar Oahu are forced to deal with a kindly, Sherlock-level genius who happens to be Chinese." My interest was piqued when I read this last summer. Two months ago, JP and I were invited to join another couple for a week in Hawaii later this spring. Oh yes, I remembered, I never did read that Charlie Chan book.

Now I have. So evocative of prewar Hawaii. And wistful for an even earlier Hawaii. Except for being incapable of speaking English well, Charlie Chan is skilled and effectual and is respected for that. Sometimes, however, the idiomatic English hits just the right note.
Chan shook his head. "Impossible in Rear Bay at Boston," he said, "but here at moonly crossroads of Pacific, not so much so. Twenty-five years of my life consumed in Hawaii, and I have many times been witness when the impossible roused itself and occurred."
Moonly crossroads, roused impossibilities.

The main character, John Quincy Winterslip of Boston, of course, is a bit of a prig when he first arrives in Hawaii. He examines a clue, a torn out guest book inscription, that reads,
"In Hawaii all things are perfect, none more so than the hospitality I have enjoyed in this house.- Joseph E. Gleason, 124 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria"

John Quincy turned away, shocked. No wonder that page had been ripped out! Evidently Mr. Gleason had not enjoyed the privilege of studying A. S. Hill's book on the principles of rhetoric.
John Quincy mellows during his visit. Hawaii is a little too much perhaps but he gives up the "Rear Bay" for a life in San Francisco.

Also native Hawaiians are insulted numerous times in the book when mainlanders fail to recognize them as fellow US citizens, Hawaii being a territory at the time this book was written. Some people still suffer from ignorance.

This book was a hoot. I am looking forward to a few days at the moonly crossroads of the Pacific myself soon. Maybe I'll read another Charlie Chan book on the plane. PRM

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