Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Around the World in Deadly Days: Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) by Earl Derr Biggers and The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars (1973)

Are there enough world tour mysteries to create a subgenre?  At the moment the only two, separated by nearly half a century, that I can think of are Charlie Chan Carries On by Earl Derr Biggers and The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars.  And even the latter is a bit of cheat because the main characters travel by plane from England to Australia, stopping off in Mexico, Fiji and New Zealand.  Then there are a couple of nice murders--or unnatural deaths shall we say--and the surviving main characters return to London, where the brief, violent climax of the tale occurs.  So that's more like halfway around the world and back.  

During the world tour by boat and train in Charlie Chan Carries On, there's a murder in a hotel room London, followed by one in France and another in Italy, and yet another, as I recollect, in coastal China (this time the Scotland Yard investigator of the original London murder), before a second Scotland Yard man investigating the first murder is shot in Charlie Chan's own office in Honolulu.  (This book has a very bloodthirsty murderer!)  This last fiendish act results in Charlie finally getting in on the case, for the final leg of the world tour, by boat, to San Francisco.  Of course Charlie bags the culprit in short order.

I read Earl Biggers' slightly earlier Chan mystery, The Black Camel (1929), last year and I wish I had blogged it because I thought it arguably a classic of the genre.  Biggers--a bestselling author of his day who died comparatively young at the age of forty-eight and who before his death had only completed a half-dozen Chan detective novels (and no short stories)--seems undervalued to me today.  

I noticed that neither Julian Symons nor Jacques Barzun (those two great I-am's-and-you-arent's of mystery criticism), though they disagreed about so much in mystery criticism, thought Biggers worth more than the most cursory of notices in their books.  I don't know why, unless in Symons' case it was a latent anti-American bias that sometimes came to surface and in Barzun's his marked dislike for what he deemed "meek," or self-effacing, detectives.  If Barzun read Chan as such, that's his mistake, because of course Chan's meekness, if that's what it is, is in the form of surface Asian politeness, concealing the incisive mind and steely will of the Great Detective beneath.

Of course Biggers' creation carries the added baggage of being a Chinese detective who was created and given tongue by a Caucasian and additionally on film for decades was played by a succession of white men.  I doubt that either Symons or Barzun, neither of whom was the most "woke" of men, would have been concerned about this, but many people have been vexed by it in modern times.  

The last of the Caucasian Chans on film was English actor Peter Ustinov, in the film Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, which was made in 1980.  By the time this flick rolled round, racial, ethnic and sexual minority groups in the United States had organized to demand better treatment and representation from the American film and television industry and the makers of this final Chan film actually found themselves, due to pressure from a Chinese-American rights group, blocked from filming in San Francisco.  

Peter Ustinov, who over his distinguished career (he was a double Oscar winner) had specialized in playing "ethnic" parts--despite his English nationality he was actually part Polish, Jewish, Russian, Ethiopian, surprisingly enough, as well as German, Italian and French--took offense at what decades later (he died in 2004) he likely would have dismissed as political correctness or wokeness. In a widely-circulated newspaper interview he dismissed the outrage over his playing a Chinese man as simply another tiresome example of America;s puritanical self-righteousness.  (He took time to denounce the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics as well).  

All of which probably didn't help the cause of the film any!  Even without modern social media.

Also probably undermining Biggers' reputation as a detective writer are two other factors: the fact that the success of the films overshadowed the books and that Biggers died at the height of the detective series success in 1933, which meant no more books in the series.  There are only six actual Chan novels, compared to the once seemingly endless parade of films.  Let's face it, had Agatha Christie died in 1933 after publishing six Poirot mysteries (Styles to End House), she wouldn't be the phenomenon she is today, even with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd under her belt.  

When I read The Black Camel, however, I had to admit that this was a very well-wrought mystery.  Unfortunately, I was not as enthusiastic about Charlie Chan Carries On.  It's not bad--Biggers was quite a good writer and could spin a yarn--but I definitely had some issues with it.  

Kete Luke is on the cover of
this 1973 pb reprint but there's no
Chan son to be found in the novel

A great part of the problem for me is that Biggers hands off so much of the story to the Yard's Chief Inspector Duff, who effectively stands in for Chan for most of the novel.  Indeed, you could call this a Duff mystery as much as a Chan mystery, except for the fact that Duff is something of a blithering incompetent, ot so it struck me.  Which is another problem I had with the book.  

Duff had appeared in an earlier Chan novel, Behind That Curtain (1928), and apparently the fans liked him so much they wanted the stalwart Yard man and Charlie to solve a mystery in London together.  Instead Biggers had his initial murder in CCCO take place in London and had Duff investigate it solo.  The two friends only appear together briefly in Honolulu.  

I found this whole structure rather unsatisfying.  Let me explain.

The opening of the novel concerns a world tour of wealthy Americans (the Depression has started but none of them seem to be feeling the pinch) that has decamped in a posh London hotel.  Biggers' description of the place made it sound a lot like Brown's, the ultra-respectable lodgment that Agatha Christie fictionalized many years later in At Bertram's Hotel (or in Christie's case--or Biggers' too for that matter--it may have been Fleming's, I have learned).  

Old Duff-er never saw it coming

Duff fails to pursue a point which would have elucidated much of the mystery much earlier, which results in further deaths in France and Italy.  But it's the murder in Italy which really bugs me.  Duff desperately needs to talk to this woman, the estranged wife of the second murder victim, at her hotel, and he knows the killer is literally gunning for her.  But does he meet the woman in her room?  Of course not!

No, he has her come down an open cage elevator to meet him in sitting room.  And of course the poor woman, dressed in white, is dramatically shot and killed in the cage and can't give Duff her information.  Dramatic, yes, and it would film well, but rather intolerably silly.

Why on earth did Duff not go meet her in her room.  Evidently because it would be improper for a man to be alone with a woman, not his wife or relation, in her room.  At least that's all I could I figure out.  If you have another idea, let me know. 

In short, I just felt like Biggers was draaaaging the story out.  This feeling lengthened when Biggers killed off the Scotland Yard and shot (though didn't kill off) Duff.  There was just too much mayhem in this story.  Also I suspicioned the murderer the moment I was introduced to this person, not from deduction, but because of a certain quality to them, which naturally I cannot name.  

And then Charlie just plays too small of a role in the whole thing, probably because the basic problem (one of those revenge from this distant past deals, which is made clear early on), is not really that complex, despite all the murders.  So I would have to tate this tour as a bit of miss.  It also stretches credulity that the tour would have continued with all this mayhem.  I would rather Charlie had just solved another murder on Hawaii.  But then the territory had such a regrettably low crime rate in those days!


eerie combo photograph-art jacket 
for the American hardcover edition 
by Roger Zimmerman

Elizabeth Ferrars' The Small World of Murder also felt to me a bit too thrillerish.  In this one a couple, Jocelyn and Nicola Foley, goes on a plane trip to Australia for Christmas to try and get over the kidnapping, some six months earlier, of their baby daughter.  The most shocking thing about this book to me was that the mother left the baby unattended in her pram outside the grocery store while she did her shopping.  My, how things have changed in fifty years!

You might be reminded of the tragic Madeleine McCann mystery, where in 2007 young Madeleine, then nearly four, evidently was kidnapped from her hotel room in Portugal while harparents dined very close nearby.  The mystery of Madeleine's disappearance remains unsolved today.  But fear not, dear readers and true crime followers, Ferrars' mystery has a solution.  

The wealthy Foleys have brought along with them on their own dime pretty Nina Hemslow, a "resting" actress who is Nicola's friend and Jocelyn's former lover, and she serves as the novel's viewpoint character.  And things quickly get dramatic.  

During stops at Mexico, Fiji and New Zealand, Nicola claims, Jocelyn has tried to kill her (mostly by pushing her into or off things).  She tells Nina he blames her for their baby Brigid's abduction, but Nina thinks her friend is surely just paranoid.  Is she?  

Things come to a head in Australia, where the threesome spends Christmas with Jocelyn's relations in the wine business at their Victorian country house.  At a certain point you surely will think you see the explanation of the kidnapping conundrum and you will indeed be right--though there is one extra twist back in London when Nina returns with a male friend involved in the affair, which resolves the murder/murders as well as the abduction.  

This is not a bad story--Ferrars rarely wrote a genuinely bad one, particularly in these years--but like a lot of travelogue mysteries it's pretty superficial in the treatments of the settings, particularly the short stops in Mexico, Fiji and New Zealand.  There's a good bit of time spent in international airports and on planes and I was reminded a little of Christie's slightly earlier Passenger to Frankfurt

I lived in Mexico City for three months in 1974 when I was eight so I was especially interested in the Mexico section, but the color is mostly about how aggressive the shoeshine boys and the like are with tourists (which was true enough as I recall).  With Australia it's mostly about the houses all having corrugated iron roofs and trim.  but Ferrars had traveled to these places and had a right to make copy, even superficial, of it.  Everything is grist to the writer's mill!  She set a couple of later novels in Australia as I recall, and additional ones over the years in other foreign parts.  Same like Christie.  

One thing The Small World of Murder has going for it is brevity.  It doesn't outsay its welcome, allowing us to engage ourselves for a time with its suspenseful little Ruth Rendellish tale of crime and cruelty that does not take a Great Detective to solve.  Sorry Charlie, you weren't needed for this one!