Today, I have my mother’s second pick, The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers.

* * *

Fourth in a series of six novels featuring the rotund Chinese detective, Charlie Chan, the pride of the Honolulu police, The Black Camel explores the world of Hollywood stars, theatre actors and their millionaire, and other not so affluent, admirers. And if, as it was for me, the reference to a black camel, is puzzling, a quote from Chan will soon resolve the issue:

Death is the black camel that kneels unbid at every gate. Sooner or later—does it matter which?

And death does visit, quite unexpectedly.

Chan has travelled to the mainland, which adds to his considerable reputation as a Detective on the Island. A proud father of eleven children, he and his traditional Chinese wife are often at a loss at how to deal with their non-traditional and Americanized brood.

The novel begins with a luxury liner drawing into Honolulu harbor on its way back from Tahiti. On board is the glamourous Hollywood star Shelah Fane, the Director, her co-stars and crew of her current film, and her newest suitor, the powerful Alan Jaynes, whose wealth stems from African diamond mines. The ship docks, the passengers deboard and move to their hotels or homes for their stay, some intending to re-board the ship when it departs the very same night. Arrangements have been made for a dinner at Shelah’s newly hired bungalow, complete with reputed Chinese chef and all her personal staff, where she hopes to spend a relaxing evening, and also bask in the adulation of local fans, who are sure to fete the famous star.  

The guests arrive, some disperse to bathe in the moonlit waters or loll on the beach, others await cocktails in the lounge, while Shelah retires to her beach hut, to make an entrance at the appropriate time. When the guests start getting restless at her non-appearance, and the chef loses his cool at the spoiling dinner, the star’s secretary Julie and her boyfriend, Jimmy Bradshaw begin a search with a chilling find. Shelah Fane has been struck down with a dagger through her heart! Detective Inspector Chan is called in and the grilling begins. As is usual, no one has seen or heard anything relevant and Chan soon realizes that this will not be an easy whodunit.

Swedish actor Warner Oland as Charlie Chan (wikipedia)

Considering the period when this book was written, it is not surprising that the Inspector faces disparaging remarks from the white race, even from Jessop the English Butler. But Chan is no pushover. I much enjoyed this repartee.

‘The Chinese cook has exhibited all the worst qualities of a heathen race—I’m sure I beg your pardon.’

A heathen race’, repeated Charlie gravely, ‘that was busy inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were still beating one another over head with spiked clubs …’ Chan nodded. “Thank you so much. Will you be kind enough to dispatch heathen cook into my presence, Jessop?”

Derr Biggers, in fact, has been credited as being one of the first to change the prevailing image of the evil Oriental, shades of Fu Manchu. He publicly acknowledged the real-life detective Chang Apana as the inspiration for the character of Charlie Chan in his letter to the Honolulu Advertiser of 28 June 1932 (Wikipedia).

Even a careful search of the hut and house reveals no clues. The only approach left is the time factor, a very narrow one, which is fixed by the star’s broken wristwatch. Yet each guest seems to have an unimpeachable alibi. The cause, revealed to Chan by the Hollywood soothsayer, Tarneverro, summoned to Hawaii by Shelah herself, leaves no doubt as to why she was in such a nervous state. The unsolved murder of Hollywood Superstar Danny Mayo, four years ago was a thorn in the side of the Honolulu police. Shelah, who was consulting Tarneverro about her proposed marriage to Alan Jaynes, admitted to him her dark secret, that she had been in Danny’s apartment when the murder took place, and not only knew the identity of the murderer, but had also spotted him in Honolulu. But she did not reveal his identity. Detective Chan slowly and painstakingly follows up each clue: the missing letter, the return of the long estranged first husband, the beachcomber, who left his footprints in the sand, and the torn-up photographs. In his own inimitable style, “A thousand-mile journey begins with one step,” he sighed, and took it—in the direction of his hat.   

Aided or rather thwarted by his eager Japanese intern, and patiently dealing with queries from the press, the public, his boss, and even his own family, with new twists and turns till the very end. An intriguing mystery, slow-paced but well worth reading.

Earl Derr Biggers (wikipedia)

Earl Derr Biggers (1884–1933) was an American novelist and playwright. His best-known novels featuring the fictional Chinese American detective Charlie Chan were adapted into popular films. Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan were made, beginning in 1926. Initially, Chan, featured only as a supporting character, was portrayed by East Asian actors, and the films met with little success. But in 1931, for the first film centering on Chan, Charlie Chan Carries On, Swedish actor Warner Oland was cast as Chan; the film became popular, and Fox went on to produce 15 more Chan films with Oland as the lead (Wikipedia). Later, in a parody version, Chan was played by Peter Ustinov.


18 thoughts on “Guest Post: Book Review: The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers #1929club

  1. In my youth I vaguely recall black and white Charlie Chan films being broadcast on television, Nira, but never watched because I assumed they played up to jokey Chinese stereotypes in terms of behaviour and speech, which I never liked; and I assume Chan was played by either Warner Oland or Peter Ustinov, which would’ve added insult to injury. So I’m pleased to see that the original novels may have been more sympathetic, especially if based on someone the author was acquainted with. Worth more than a passing glance anyway! Thanks for drawing attention to the series.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The movies are rather silly, for want of a better word, the newer ones even worse than the original B&W, but I do enjoy the novels. You must try one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Strangely enough, according to Wikipedia, the earlier Chan movies had East Asian actors playing Chan, but they were not popular. It was only when Oland was cast as Charlie Chan that they took off with something like 28 films produced in all.

      Liked by 1 person

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