Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Chinese Parrot: Review

The Chinese Parrot (1926) is the second in Earl Derr Biggers's mystery series featuring Charlie Chan.  The Charlie Chan stories were first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.  What is interesting is that these stories were running during the same time period as Sax Rohmer's "yellow peril" Fu Manchu.  Biggers's representation of Asians may not be perfect, but it is certainly far more positive than most of the Western literature of the early 20th century.  The Chinese detective from Honolulu manages to outsmart everyone in this snapshot of 1920s America.  And he's using his intelligence for good, rather than in an evil "yellow" plot to wipe out civilization.

A society lady who has fallen on hard times (read: her wastrel son has squandered the fortune his father had left) is forced to sell her valuable string of pearls in order to meet debts and have something to live on.  Millionaire P. J. Madden is determined to have the pearls as what he calls a just revenge for how this lady looked right through him when he was a nobody bellhop.  A deal is arranged by Eden, a prominent San Francisco jeweler (and friend of the lady's family).  Charlie Chan, formerly a houseboy in the lady's home and now a detective with the Honolulu police, is asked to transport the pearls to San Francisco where he will join the jewler's son, Bob, for the journey to New York to deliver the pearls.

But the jeweler receives a phone call changing the plan--Madden has decided to visit his desert ranch and wants the pearls delivered there instead.  There are known criminals lurking about and Bob Eden--and Chan--begin to be worried about the arrangements. It is decided that the two will travel separately and Chan will disguise himself as a man in need of work in order to get into Madden's home. He masquerades as Ah Kim, a "boy of all work" who tends the fireplace, cooks, picks up supplies, and occasionally chauffeurs.  Once established on the ranch, they encounter a Chinese-speaking parrot who dies before he can tell all, someone else will be murdered, and Bob will play poker with a millionaire and one of the shady characters.  There will be tales of arsenic and Chan will find a hidden bullet hole as well as the missing gun which was responsible.

I grew up watching the Charlie Chan movies on Saturday/Sunday afternoon television and I must say that I appreciate this novel much more.  I enjoyed the mystery and the wisdom of Chan.  It didn't matter that I suspected who was responsible the entire time...there were enough twists and turns and unknowns to make for an enjoyable read.  Three and a half stars.


J F Norris said...

I was surprised he turns into a sort of hero pulp action hero in the finale of this book. So different from the movie incarnation. Where do people get all this racist malarkey? Biggers was anti-racist. It's very apparent if you read the books.

For me the mystery plot in THE BLACK CAMEL is the best. So far. I have three more to go. There is a nice modern feel to THE CHINESE PARROT that was refreshing for a book written and published in the 1920s.

Hope to read more Chan reviews here.

Bev Hankins said...

John: I have another Chan in one of the many TBR stacks around the back room...Not sure when I'll get around to it though.

Julie said...

This sounds like a very fun read! Thanks for the review!

Ryan said...

I almost bought this book a few days ago as the used bookstore. Maybe I should go back and get it.

Bev Hankins said...

Yes, Ryan. You should.