Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Earl Derr Biggers: Guest Post by Barbara Gregorich

Let There Be Light 

During the 1910s Earl Derr Biggers, a 29-year-old Midwesterner, achieved immediate success and fame with Bobbs-Merrill’s publication of his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, a romantic escapade. George M. Cohan bought stage rights to the book, and then movie rights. Biggers went on to write novellas and stage plays: his musical adaptation of his Love Insurance novella was highly praised for decades.

With the advent of the Golden Age of Mystery, Biggers turned his pen toward writing detective fiction, and it was this decision (and the detective he created) that catapulted him from national fame to world fame. The six Charlie Chan novels were translated into 23 languages, and when Biggers traveled abroad he was hailed as “Charlie Chan’s Poppa.”

And then . . . Earl Derr Biggers fell into a kind of obscurity. A dimness. A blurred distinctness. Three factors led to the world forgetting who Earl Derr Biggers was. First was the author’s early death (1933 at the age of 49), which brought a sudden halt to the series of Chan novels. Second was the subsequent domination of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction over the more genial school exemplified by Biggers. Third was Hollywood’s churning out dozens of Charlie Chan films one after the other, allowing the sheer number of the film versions to eclipse the six Chan novels.

When I first read the Chan novels, I was sixteen years old, and I had never heard of Earl Derr Biggers. The fact that I picked up the hard-bound, well-worn novels at all was due to the fact I grew up not far from Warren, Ohio, Biggers’ home town, and I happened to find his novels on a shelf titled Local Authors. By the time I was sixteen, I had been reading detective fiction (my mother’s books) for three or four years. I read Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Philip MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout — and I thought the Biggers’ novels fit right in with this company. They were well-plotted, with interesting characters and intriguing settings.

However, because there were only six Chan novels, and because they weren’t available to me except on the shelves of the Warren Public Library, I mostly forgot about them. Until the 1970s, when my husband and I won a trip to Hawaii and there, waiting for me as I stepped off the plane, was a rack of paperback novels — prominent among them the Bantam paperback editions of Biggers’ Chan novels. I bought the first one there, in Hawaii, and read it there. And then I bought the other five when we returned home, and read them, too.

My second reading of these novels stirred something inside me — a thought process of sorts, which got me to wondering why Biggers’ novels weren’t as well-known as the novels of other Golden Age authors. My initial reaction was that Biggers’ was less known because he ended up writing only six novels, whereas authors such as Christie, Marsh, and Gardner each wrote significantly more novels.

Fast forward into the 1990s, when I was searching for Ohio history topics to write about for Timeline, the magazine of the Ohio Historical Society. Biggers came to mind immediately. But there was so little known about him, I wasn’t sure I could write an entire article on him. A little sleuthing, though, and I learned that the Lilly Library at Indiana University was the repository of all the Bobbs-Merrill files after that publisher went out of business in 1959. Bobbs-Merrill was Biggers’ publisher. A few phone calls later and I had an appointment to do research at the Lilly Library. I spent two or three days there going through the Biggers files, reading every piece of correspondence and examining every postcard, poster, and piece of publicity material. Not a scrap of paper escaped me.

My article, “Charlie Chan’s Poppa: The Life of Earl Derr Biggers,” was published in the January-February 1999 version of Timeline — and as the internet grew, that article became ubiquitous. I was quite happy with this contribution to public knowledge of one of the main American authors of the Golden Age. And I had no thought of doing anything further.

But then, just as three factors led to Biggers falling into obscurity, so three different factors led to light shining on him, removing the dimness and sharpening his distinctness.

First, in 2008 Academy Chicago reissued the six Chan novels in beautiful trade paperback editions. After a long absence, the novels were readily available.

Second, Yunte Huang published Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton, 2010). In 2011 the book won the Edgar for Best Critical/Biographical work.

Third, J.K. Van Dover published Making the Detective Story American: Biggers, Van Dine and Hammett and the Turning Point of the Genre, 1925-1930 (McFarland, 2010).

By 2010, a mystery fan could see that knowledge of Earl Derr Biggers was not dead. Writers and editors were discussing Biggers, writing about him, evaluating him. (Jon Breen had been doing this since the 1970s.) And so I decided I really should write a book about Earl Derr Biggers — partly because he and I were from the same patch of ground, partly because my love of the Chan novels goes back such a long way — and partly because I still had all the research notes I had taken at the Lilly Library.

Thus was born Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers (CreateSpace, 2018), a small book which I hope contributes to letting more light shine on the creator of the endearing fictional sleuth, Charlie Chan.

Barbara Gregorich writes both fiction and nonfiction. Her mystery novels Dirty Proof and Sound Proof feature private eye Frank Dragovic, and her Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies teaches through examples. She has been a fan of Earl Derr Biggers and Charlie Chan since she was in high school. 

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