Saturday, September 24, 2016

Book Review/Essay: Behind That Curtain

Behind That Curtain
Earl Derr Biggers

This was my first exposure to Charlie Chan. I'd never read any of the books, nor seen any of the movies. I came in with no strong personal opinion, but with the knowledge that the character is often regarded as a racist caricature.

That view isn't wrong, but it isn't complete either. Charlie Chan is a comic character, but then many fictional detectives are comic characters. Think of Lt. Columbo, or the early Lord Peter Wimsey, or--most especially--of Hercule Poirot. Like Poirot, Chan says and does things that are funny, or he says and does them in funny ways. He's full of minor malapropisms. Behind That Curtain came out in 1928; so did Christie's masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Here are some quotes from each book.

A four-horse chariot could not have dragged me in an opposite direction.The good dog, he does not leave the scent, remember!
I am torn with grief to disagree.I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur.
This last story illuminates darkness.The affair marches, does it not?
Your words have obscure sound.The word exact, you are zealous for it.

In similar fashion, Chan has a collection of eccentricities and fussy little habits. He often emits little bits of faux-Chinese wisdom. He addresses others with exaggerated humility (in one case, indeed, it's obviously sarcastic). All this is typical of a comic-detective character, like Columbo with his car and his raincoat and his "There's just one more thing . . ." shtick.

So Chan is funny; but he's not being made fun of. The characters in the book don't condescend to Chan. On the contrary, they refer to him as a genius, as a great detective--indeed, as a respectable peer for Sir Frederic Bruce, former head of Scotland Yard. The exception is the one character who's depicted negatively: an American policeman. Needless to say, it's Chan and not Inspector Flannery who solves the case.

Nonetheless, there's an element of racism. Poirot is foreign; Chan is alien. Poirot is eccentric because he's from another country. Chan is different because he is "a Chinese". This is the kind of book that takes it for granted that you can say "The Chinese are . . . " (as well as "The Americans are . . .") and have it generally applicable: "The Chinese are a nocturnal people." Americans "smile", but Chinese "grin". However admirable he may be, Charlie Chan is other in a way that Hercule Poirot is not.

This wasn't an uncommon attitude in the 1920s, even among so-called progressives. The idea that race was a real and immutable thing, rather than a gauzy psycho-social fiction, was mainstream. Liberals tended to argue, not that other races were like Europeans, but that they were different yet equivalent. Not just white Americans, but black Americans, gave voice to this in the U.S.--the classic book When Harlem Was in Vogue has some startling examples.

In the end, I personally was able to read Behind That Curtain through mental corrective lenses. I found that I could give Earl Derr Biggers credit for trying to portray a Chinese detective in a positive way--certainly in contrast to a lot of contemporary literature--and de-escalate the bits that grate against a 21st-century sensibility. I wouldn't blame anyone who felt otherwise, though.

As a book qua book, it's readable. The writing is at a young adult level: simple sentences, not too much description, no mood, strongly one- or zero-dimensional characters. The story moves along at a good clip. There are a few too many characters, and the final resolution depends a bit too much on coincidence, but it's not without cleverness. Although Earl Derr Biggers was no Agatha Christie, I've read substantially worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment