Friday, February 8, 2013

FFB: The Black Camel - Earl Derr Biggers

Charlie Chan is on the case!

Strange that though he is a member of the Honolulu Police Department there are only two books in the Chan series that take place in Hawaii. One of those (The House Without a Key) is only partially set there. The Black Camel (1929) is the fourth book in the Chan series and the only one which is set exclusively in Hawaii. It is also the first book in which we meet Chan's family. Well, his wife and four of his eleven children to be specific. Where the other seven kids have gone is never mentioned. For the record those four kids are named Rose, Evelyn, Henry and Barry. Barry is a baby in this book and is named after movie actor Barry Kirk who appeared in the novel Behind That Curtain. There's some hardcore Charlie Chan trivia for you! File that away for this year's Challenge to Reader Trivia contest. There's only one other website that goes into detail about the Chan children as described in the books.

But I digress...

Shelah Fane, stunning movie actress, is on her way back to Hawaii after a trip to Tahiti where Alan Jaynes proposed marriage to her. Before she accepts she must consult with her personal advisor the psychic Tarneverro who is also making his way to Hawaii. During her consultation with the psychic Shelah confesses that she has knowledge of the murder of  actor Denny Mayo, with whom she was romantically linked three years ago and whose murder remains unsolved. Tarneverro cajoles her into revealing she was present at the time of the murder and knows the murderer is here on the island. But was there someone listening on the balcony of their hotel room? Just prior to a dinner party Shelah had planned for all her movie co-workers and friends she is found stabbed in a pavilion not far from her main house. Could her murder be related to Denny Mayo's murder? And is the murderer truly on the island as she confessed to Tarneverro?

Academy Chicago paperback reprint
Charlie Chan is soon on the case and finding clue after clue: among them a cigar stub left outside the pavilion window, a stolen letter from Shelah, a torn photo hidden under a potted plant, a broken diamond pin. There seems to be a plethora of clues with each one incriminating a different dinner party guest. Somewhat against his will Chan finds himself teamed up with the psychic Tarneverro who has shown too much of a personal interest in the murder. It is a battle of wits and detective skills between the two. By the end of the book Charlie will learn the true identity of Denny Mayo's murderer, the killer of Shelah Fane, and several deep dark secrets among the entire cast of characters.

This is one of purest American traditional detective novels you may ever encounter. Tightly constructed with multiple clues presented expertly in a genuine fair play technique it has both a familiar and modern feel to it all.  Familiar in the old-fashioned sense of a supersleuth hunting for clues and modern in Biggers' deft and breezy dialogue. The characters, for the most part, would seem right at home in the 21st century rather than the 1920s. From the opening scenes with a terrified and angst-ridden Shelah Fane meeting with Tarneverro to the timeworn gathering of the suspects in the dining room where Chan has them recreate their seating arrangement at the dinner party The Black Camel has all the ingredients to satisfy a true fan of detective fiction.

In 1001 Midnights Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller award this book a coveted asterisk marking it as noteworthy in the development of the genre. Marcia Muller, who wrote the entries for Earl Derr Biggers, also says it's the highlight in the Chan series. I have read three of the Chan novels so far and I have to agree with their assessment. For the Hawaiian setting, the tightly constructed plot, the abundance of clues and a neat final surprise you can't beat this book.


Also worth mentioning is the movie version released in 1931. Of the few film adaptations of the Charlie Chan novels The Black Camel is the most faithful to its source material. With the exception of a minor actress all of the characters from the book appear in the movie and all of them retain their original character names. Warner Oland reprises his role as Chan, Bela Lugosi appears as the sinister Tarneverro, and a very youthful Robert Young is cast as the enthusiastic tourism P.R. man Jimmy Bradshaw who also serves as Bigger's typical starry-eyed young lover in a minor subplot. My review of the movie is now posted here.

12 comments:

  1. Marvellous John - I've only ever seen the movie though I do have this one on the shelves but really want to read this one now - and just love the cover with the crystal ball!

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  2. I haven't read a Charlie Chan mystery ever though reviews of Earl Derr Biggers books have put me wise to this rather unusual Chinese-American detective. I have a gut feeling that I might have recently stumbled upon a Biggers paperback in a used bookstore, if such a thing is indeed plausible. Have his books been reprinted in recent times?

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    1. A few of them were published in paperback in the 40s and then all of them turned up in Popular Library editions in the 1970s. The most recent editions are from Academy Chicago, a publisher who reprinted all of the Charlie Chan books back in 2008 and into 2009 (see the photo above on the right hand side ofthe post). A recent visit to their website tells me that they are now available in eBook format in addition to trade paperbacks. I still manage to run across the old hardcovers (mostly Grosset & Dunlap reprints) for less than the price of the new trade paperback books. Take your pick. The Chan books are out there in abundance.

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    2. John, thanks for the info on the reprints. I'm sure I am going to find some Charlie Chan books, especially since there appears to be a glut of early- to mid-20th century paperbacks in India. My secondhand bookstore owner tells me they are coming in "lots" but he doesn't know where from. Good for me. I have been quite lucky in recent months particularly with Ed McBain and John MacDonald books.

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  3. This plot sounds so familiar, John. It's bascially used yet again in CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO. I haven't seen THE BLACK CAMEL movie, though I think it's available to view on youtube. Hmmmm, guess what I'll be watching next.

    I'm going to order a copy of THE BLACK CAMEL since you make it sound like a definite Must Read. I hear and I obey, o great one. :)

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  4. Wow! I think you're right. I just finished reading the plot blurbs for CC IN RIO and it sounds like the plot is complletely lifted from THE BLACK CAMEL with only a singer serving as the vicitm and the setting shifted to Brazil.

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    1. I know. It sounded so similar I was confused a bit. Have you seen CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO? It's pretty good. Victor Jory plays the sinister magician/psychic/whatnot.

      The story doesn't really make much sense if you break it down, but it's still a lot of fun.

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  5. This is a great review and lots of additional information. My husband has all of the books (in the recent reprint edition) and had read four of them. I have only read the first. And enjoyed it a lot. I have a Dell Mapback edition for Keeper of the Keys.

    I am glad you pointed out that there is a movie by the same name. We have seen all of them (well, almost all) but I had forgotten about that one.

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  6. Thanks for the helpful review, John. I've read just 2 of the 6 Chan novels, and your post tells me which one I should read next. I very much agree that Biggers wrote in a crisp, modern way that somewhat belies the reputation that attaches to these books. Even the characterization of Charlie Chan—which no doubt accounts for part of that reputation—has a smart, forward-looking quality to it, at least in comparison with the CC that Hollywood gave to the world.

    I love those recent Academy Chicago reprints, by the way. If only every Golden Age detective novelist were able to get that kind of publishing love!

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  7. I've only read Keeper of the Keys thus far but I liked it quite a bit and I'll probably check out some others somewhere down the line. I thought I'd also give Biggers' Seven Keys to Baldpate a try and I still haven't managed to struggle through to the finish. Almost there.

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    1. I have SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE in my TBR pile for this month. Amazing how popular it was back in the day. A stage adaptation and four movie versions! I think Biggers developed a more accessible style with the Chan books. His dialogue sure did improve. His early stuff, however, tended to be stodgy like much of what was written between 1900 and 1925 in US popular fiction.

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  8. I've read only the first in the series, which I enjoyed, but this is another series I never seem to get back to. Just too many books to read.

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