“The House Without A Key” by Earl Derr Biggers (1925)

I read about this one in our Swedish newspaper; it is being re-published in Swedish now (“Huset som saknade nyckel“), and the review was so favourable I had to read it at once. Of course, I chose to read it in English. I was not disappointed, this really is a wonderful novel, or at least, a wonderful whodunit. The drama that took place in my mind´s eye was very much like an old Hollywood movie from the 30´s or 40´s, the way they looked, the way they talked.

I kept thinking John Quincy looked and sounded like a young James Stewart.
I kept thinking John Quincy looked and sounded like a young James Stewart.

The main character in this piece is initially stuck-up Boston brahmin John Quincy Winterslip, come to Honolulu to fetch his aunt Minerva, who seems uninclined to return home after what should have been a relatively short visit at his cousins, the “wild and crazy”, western Winterslips whose reputations are not endearing them much to the Boston aristocrats. He is nearly 30 years old, but refered to as “the boy” all through the book, which really focuses as much on John Quincy´s developing character as it does on who killed his cousin, a businessman with secrets to hide. John Quincy has started to thaw already when we meet him in San Francisco, a city he falls in love with as readily as a girl he meets on a ferry there, and who, coincidentally, is a native of Honolulu. Nor is John Quincy a fool (this was a great relief to me), he doesn´t make an ass of himself even in the company of the best detective on the islands: Charlie Chan.

“You know,” remarked John Quincy, “I´d like to work with you on this case, if you´ll let me.” “I have only delight,” Chan answered. “You arrive from Boston, a city most cultivated, where much more English words are put to employment than are accustomed here. I thrill when you speak. Greatest privilege for me, I would say.””

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Warner Oland as Charlie Chan.

Charlie Chan is hardly a household name in Sweden, in spite of him being played some 15 times by Swedish actor Warner Oland. Oland was born in Bjurholm, Ångermanland, as Johan Verner Ölund, and emigrated at 13. It is kind of funny that his greatest role was as a Chinese detective, and if you like to see what that looked and sounded like, you can find several of the films easily enough on youtube. I watched “Charlie Chan in London” and had to smile at the distinct Swedish accent he has at times. The Charlie Chan in the book doesn´t look much like Oland at all, but no matter.

I recommend this whole-heartedly if you want some easy, relaxing reading that isn´t annoyingly dumb. This is charming, full of quick dialogue and energy, and not terribly easy to figure out. Biggers also manage to convey a very vivid impression of Honolulu and Waikiki beach, as I guess it would have been in the 1920´s. There are five more novels about Charlie Chan and I am definitely keeping them in mind for later.

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5 thoughts on ““The House Without A Key” by Earl Derr Biggers (1925)”

  1. I love a good who-dunnit, so this sounds really interesting. I’ve read one Charlie Chan novel, but it’s been so long ago, I can’t even remember the name of it.

    Glad you enjoyed it, and really enjoyed reading your review.

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