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Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History

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  • Posted December 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Flawed by academic analysis, but otherwise a fine biography

    Charlie Chan, especially his fine portrayal by Warner Oland, is one of the literary detective heroes of my youth, seen on countless Saturday night mystery movies on WKBS Channel 48 from Philadelphia and WSBK TV-38 from Boston in the halcyon days of cable in the 1980s. The notion of an Oriental detective who, despite his exotic face, nevertheless shared both the same deductive genius as Sherlock Holmes and the same passion for justice as Jules Maigret absolutely fascinated my growing mind. I had known about the inspiration of the character, Chang Apana of the early 20th Century Honolulu P.D., for a long time, but it was very difficult to find any information about him; indeed, finding any biographical information on Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of the Charlie Chan mysteries, was not much easier. Yunte Huang's biography, inspired by a chance finding of a Charlie Chan collection at an estate sale, is thus an important find for me. Unfortunately, especially in the latter half of the book, Huang's writing suffers, as most academicians' do, from an overarching sense of "The Importance of My Subject," wherein historical facts are analyzed in an exaggerated or distorted fashion to support or prove the author's point. Nowhere is this more evident in Huang's exploration of the "racist" context of the 1920s, where Charlie Chan was one of the few well-regarded examples of Chinese-American culture, and his subsequent writing of the vehement, absurd rejection of Charlie Chan by the Asian-American community as a caricature Chinaman inferior to whites by virtue of his idiosyncratic Confucian sayings and accent and/or his portrayal by non-Chinese actors. The book does indeed suffer from such pseudo-intellectual babble and thus becomes quite tiring at times. For me, a more interesting comparison could have been drawn between Chan and Robert Van Gulik's medieval Chinese detective, Judge Dee, Nevertheless, when Huang stays close to the purported reason for his writing, the exploration of Chang Apana's life and how greatly this served as fodder for the creation of Charlie Chan, Huang crafts a well-researched, compelling biography not only of one of the most important figures in early 20th Century American detective literature but also of a relatively little-known yet still fascinating Hawaiian detective. Look past the academic pretensions, then, and you find a good look behind the curtain (no pun intended) at the Charlie Chan mysteries, one of the most enjoyable series in the genre.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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