Move over, Charlie Chan
Earlier this fall, the small press publisher Academy Chicago did what publishers seem to do every few years: re-release the first two books in a series by an American writer named Earl DerrBiggers (1884-1933). That seems like a remarkable occurrence for one of the Golden Age’s lesser-known authors of detective fiction, but Biggers is an example of a writer subsumed by his creation, all but forgotten as his main character inspires a cultural shift that’s both good and bad.
Up until the mid-1920s, Biggers wrote well-received and popular novels such as “Seven Keys to Baldpate” (1913), adapted several times for the silver screen and given regards to Broadway by George M. Cohan. Then a chance encounter with a newspaper article while on vacation in Hawaii introduced Biggers to the horsewhip-carrying, scar-inflected, Chinese American police detective Chang Apana, whose fluency in several languages and frequent (if unorthodox) crime-solving proved to be just the creative catalyst Biggers needed. And so, Charlie Chan was born, approximately 80 pages into “A House Without a Key” (1925), and proved so popular he returned for five more adventures, starting in 1927 with “The Chinese Parrot.”
It’s hard to separate the book version of Charlie Chan from the myriad of spinoffs in film, television, radio and even comics, whose collected oeuvre has come under a great deal of fire for playing up stereotypes and casting white actors such as Warner Oland (of Swedish descent) and Sidney Toler as the detective. But going back to the novels is a pleasant surprise: Sure, Biggers prefers to extol Chan’s kind and saintly virtues -- not to mention his penchant for mangling English language aphorisms -- instead of using the harder-boiled source material of Apana’s life and background. But the early Chan novels combine solid entertainment value with a quest, however misguided, to portray both Hawaii’s culture and Asian Americans’ place within said culture in a positive light.
Many decades would pass, however, until good intentions matched execution. John P. Marquand’s Depression-era novels featuring Japanese secret agent Mr. Moto were an immediate sensation but traffic more in stereotype and likely won’t be back in print anytime soon. Several novels by Harry Stephen Keeler involve Asian characters or settings but are remembered less for them than for the author’s wildly pyrotechnic writing style. And Robert van Gulik made use of the prism of history for his 7th century-era detective Judge Dee to get around issues of cultural appropriation.
More authentic (if not always sympathetic) portrayals of Asian Americans are in abundance today, due in large part to increased interest in crime fiction set outside traditional borders. New York’s Chinatown teems with life and mayhem in S.J. Rozan’s P.I. novels featuring Lydia Chin (who returns after several years’ absence in “The Shanghai Moon,” published in February) and Henry Chang’s two novels starring homicide detective Jack Yu, whose exploits in “The Year of the Dog” (Soho, 244 pp., $23.95) mine far darker streets than Charlie Chan ever traveled.
The door’s also kicked open to a slew of top-notch crime fiction set in Asia proper, especially China. Before Lisa See’s name became a bestselling staple with “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” she penned a trilogy of detective novels exploring U.S.-China relations as seen through the eyes of her cop heroine, Liu Hulan. Diane Wei Liang turns the private investigator trope on its ear with “The Eye of Jade” (Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $24.95) by exploring the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. And Qiu Xialong’s Inspector Chen, due to reappear in March in “The Mao Case,” must navigate China’s often-inexplicable bureaucracy to perform his job even adequately. Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia yield additional superior crime fiction titles too numerous to name.
That brings us to Inspector Jian, the mercurial, morally ambiguous detective thrown into one perilous situation after another in Simon Lewis’ outstanding thriller debut, “Bad Traffic” (Scribner: 380 pp., $24). The impetus for leaving his native China is to look for his daughter, a university student gone missing in rural Scotland, setting up a classic fish-out-of-water story: “Back home Jian had rank and status and was used to people rushing to do his bidding. But he was nothing here, just a nuisance. If he wanted things done, he’d have to do them himself.”
What Jian has to do is descend into the once-secret world of human trafficking, a milieu Lewis depicts in harrowing detail. There is a disaffected youth, a psychopath adept at pulling the puppet strings of the desperate and a young English-speaking illegal named Ding Ming, who will serve as Jian’s guide even as he’s staying only a stutter-step ahead of his smugglers, who want money and his life to boot.
“Bad Traffic” is a rabbit-hole that a reader is willingly sucked into, its fast pace and staccato style a preliminary enticement to deeper insights into the changing nature of Chinese mores. When thinking of his educated daughter, Jian wonders, “Was there ever such a gilded generation as the urban Chinese born in the Eighties? Their whole lives they had surfed the edge of a glorious wave of progress. . . . For them, the world could be trusted to just keep on delivering the goods. They had known nothing but bounty, so there was something green about them. They were as alien as foreigners.” This sense of entitlement was built on the backs of those surviving the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution, where those in power like Inspector Jian humiliated intellectuals in the name of Mao.
But when ideology disappears, all that’s left to believe in is “love and money, and you’d better have one or the other.” But Jian’s nihilism may manifest itself in steeling himself up to kill regardless of consequence, but it is exactly those consequences -- the fate of his daughter -- that allows for personification. The scarred contemporary landscape of China created his veneer, but having to function in the greater existential nightmare of a Western world is what restores Jian’s humanity, little by little.
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