Thursday, August 6, 2009

A dead parrot and a missing body

THE CHINESE PARROT (1926), by Earl Derr Biggers

In Radio by the Book, I start the chapter on Charlie Chan with the sentence “Charlie Chan is always both the smartest and the most likable guy in the room.”

And, by golly, this is true. It’s impossible not to like and admire Charlie—not just because he’s a great detective, but also because he’s a thoroughly decent man who makes friends easily and devoutly loves his large family.

He demonstrates his decency within the first few chapters of The Chinese Parrot. On vacation from the Honolulu police force, he sails to San Francisco as a favor for an old friend, guarding a valuable string of pearls that’s being delivered to its new owner.

But when there are indications that thieves are after the pearls, Charlie readily agrees to sacrifice more vacation time and stay on the job.

He teams up with Bob Eden—the wayward son of the jeweler who is facilitating the purchase of the pearls. The two are soon wrapped up in a strange case in which they are pretty sure they know who committed a murder, but don’t have any idea who was actually killed. Along the way, a parrot is poisoned and a servant is stabbed to death (giving them a body this time, but leaving them uncertain as to who committed the crime on this occasion). Charlie shows he has some fire in him when he has to deal with an incompetent and racist policeman, but he keeps his cool over all, putting the clues together and eventually explaining everything.

It’s a good, solid mystery with an unusual slant to it. There are a few too many instances in which a clue comes Charlie’s way purely by chance for the plot to be perfect, but his deductions leading to the denouement are still clever and reasonable—so it is, overall, a satisfying mystery.

Besides, the fun of a Charlie Chan novel is being able to hang out with the guy for a couple hundred pages. He is—as I believe I’ve already mentioned—the smartest and most likable guy in the room.

Next month, we’ll jump back into hard-boiled territory with a look at Black Money, by Ross MacDonald, featuring P.I. Lew Archer.

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