Earl Derr Biggers

Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933) was a popular novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Worn out by the stresses of revising plays for temperamental actors, he took a vacation to Hawaii in 1920. While basking on the beach of Waikiki (and probably thinking of temperamental actors), he plotted the perfect murder. In 1925 he published The House Without a Key, depicting that perfect murder and introducing the character of Chinese-Hawaiian police inspector Charlie Chan.

Charlie Chan was an overnight sensation: fans clamored for more, propelling Biggers into writing a series. The first Chan novel was followed by five others. With the early death of Biggers in 1933, the novels stopped. Today far more people know of Chan through movies and television than through the novels.

My article, “Charlie Chan’s Poppa: The Life of Earl Derr Biggers,” (Timeline, January-February 1999) tells the story of Biggers and his most famous creation. The issue of Timeline featuring this article is available through the Ohio Historical Society web site.

Behind the Article

Earl Derr Biggers was born and raised in Warren, Ohio. As a teenager in Trumbull County, Ohio, I often used the public library in Warren, which was the county seat. There I discovered local authors such as Biggers. I first read the six Chan novels when in high school, then again ten years later, then again after that.

In the late 1990s I decided to write an article about Biggers — partly because I grew up near his home town; partly because few people knew of Biggers; partly because even fewer knew that Charlie Chan as Biggers depicted him was not the same as the movie caricature. In researching Biggers, I spent days at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, going through the Bobbs-Merrill Collection, which housed the correspondence between Biggers and his editor. I was also guided by and indebted to the articles written by mystery reviewer Jon L. Breen. — Bg

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