Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) was a novelist and playwright who was best known as the creator of Charlie Chan. Born in Warren, Ohio, he attended Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard, he briefly held jobs at the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper and BobbMerrill publishers. He wrote for the Boston Traveler from 1908 til 1912, first as a humor columnist and later as drama critic. His harsh criticisms made him many enemies and apparently led to his being fired in 1912.
The following year he published his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913), a melodramatic story. It was a best seller that was praised by the critics. Broadways famous George M. Cohan adapted it for the stage and it had a highly successful run and numerous subsequent revivals. Seven Keys to Baldpate was filmed in 1917, 1925, 1929, 1935,1947 and 1982 (the last under the title House of the Long Shadows). It also served as an uncredited source for many other motion pictures.
Biggers second novel was Love Insurance (1914) but I know nothing about it. It was followed by The Agony Column (1916) which told the story of a young couple falling in love after making contact through the "agony column" (the personal ads) of a London paper, but it also contains the tale of a mysterious murder. For the next several years he concentrated on writing and producing plays.
Exhausted from his efforts on Broadway, Biggers and his wife took an extended vacation in Hawaii in 1919. His experiences during this vacation contributed settings to his next novel, Fifty Candles (1921). In this tale, attorney Mark Drew travels from Hawaii to the underbelly of fog-shrouded San Francisco to solve a murder.
During his visit to Hawaii Biggers read about two local Chinese detectives named Chang Apana and Lee Fook. It occurred to him that a Chinese detective would be an interesting character. It also appealed to him as an opportunity to give a more positive and accurate portrayal than the image of the "sinister Chinaman" then common in literature. It can certainly be charged that the character he created in Charlie chan was also a stereotype but he was a much more positive one than any preceding it in the popular literature of the day.
On January 24, 1925, The Saturday Evening Post carried the first installment of "The House Without a Key," a story that was soon published as a novel by Bobbs-Merrill. The House Without a Key tells the story of the murder in a Honolulu beach house of the black sheep of one of the local aristocratic American families. Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu PD is not introduced until chapter 7 and he is not the detective in charge of the investigation. By the end of the case, however, Chan becomes the central figure and solves the mystery. In my opinion, this is the best of the six novels in the Charlie Chan series.
The House Without a Key was followed by The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind the Curtain (1928), and The Black Camel (1929). Each novel was filmed soon after publication but the role of Chan was minimized in these first three films, turning him into no more than a supporting character. It is often said that an Asian actor has never portrayed Charlie Chan, but that is untrue. The first actor to portray Chan was Japanese, but it is true that no Chinese actor has ever played the part.
In 1930, Bobbs-Merrill released Biggers' fifth Chan novel Charlie Chan Carries On. As in The House Without a Key, Chan enters the story at a later stage. The story begins with a Scotland Yard inspector joining a round-the-world cruise convinced that one of the passengers is a murderer. When the inspector himself is murdered, Chan takes over and solves the case during the crossing from Hawaii to San Francisco. This is my choice for second best novel in the series.
Like the previous novels, Charlie Chan Carries On soon became a movie but unlike the previous films, it prominently featured Charlie Chan -- portrayed by Warner Oland. The film, released in 1931, was an immediate success, prompting Fox to purchase the rights to The Black Camel (1929) which opened only four months later, continuing the on-screen success of Charlie Chan. That success was to be continued through the longest series of movies in cinema history.
Keeper of the Keys (1932) was the only Chan novel that was never adapted as a motion picture. There was a stage production but it had only a short run, perhaps discouraging Hollywood from trying a screen version.
The Charlie Chan movies are entertaining but even the best of them (such as Charlie Chan Carries On or Charlie Chan at the Opera) fail to convey the quality of the novels. If you would like to give the novels a try, I would recommend The House Without a Key and Charlie Chan Carries On as the best of the lot and my personal favorites.