All Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu police really wanted to do was get on a steamship in San Francisco and sail home to Honolulu, where his family (including his newborn son) awaited him. But a very old disappearance and murder both old and new got in his way.
Fifteen years earlier, a British woman named Eve Durand disappeared one night after a picnic in the hills outside Peshawar, a city (today part of Pakistan) that was then inside India. Searches for the missing woman were fruitless. But now a retired Scotland Yard senior detective, Sir Frederic Bruce, in San Francisco on the trail of a murderer, believed he was on the verge of solving the mystery of Eve Durand.
Fifteen years, Sir Frederic says to Charlie Chan. "Fifteen years since that little picnic party rode back to Peshawar, back to the compound of the lonely garrison, leading behind them the riderless pony of Eve Durand. And fifteen years, I may tell you, make a very heavy curtain on India’s frontier."
"That is the curse of our business, Sergeant. No matter what our record of successes, there must always remain those curtains behind which we long with unlimited yearning to look – and never do.""
But murder interferes with the plans both of Sir Frederic and of Charlie Chan. And it will be up to the latter to look Behind That Curtain. The 1928 book by Earl Derr Biggers is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
So many mystery lovers have grown up with the old Charlie Chan movies that it may come as a surprise to learn that the creator of the character, author Earl Derr Biggers, only wrote six novels featuring the Chinese-American detective from the Honolulu police. Biggers deliberately created Charlie Chan as a kind of antidote to the rather offensive “yellow peril” mysteries and thrillers – think of Dr. Fu Manchu, for example. Instead, Biggers gave us an intelligent, warm and witty central character, very much a family man, given to clever aphorisms and with a talent for self-effacement. In many of the mysteries, Chan triumphs over adversaries (often including other police officers) who look down on him because of his race.
There’s some of that in Behind that Curtain, the third of the six Charlie Chan mysteries, originally published in 1928. Chan is on vacation in San Francisco when he meets Sir Frederic Bruce, a former senior official at Scotland Yard. Sir Frederic reveals that he is on the trail of a murderer who killed a British solicitor many years earlier. He also tells Chan that he believes the murder may be linked in some way to that mysterious disappearance of Eve Durand.
But Sir Frederic’s quest ends abruptly in murder. Charlie Chan wants no part of the case, but he is pressed into taking an active role by other investigators – even though his presence is resented by Captain Flannery, the San Francisco police officer put in charge of the investigation. And Chan’s insights and experience will, indeed, prove central to finding a solution.
The bottom line: I found Behind that Curtain thoroughly enjoyable. There’s plenty of action and some very respectable red herrings will be dragged across our trail, and Charlie Chan himself is a most remarkable character. If you only know him from the movies, you really ought to meet the original in Earl Derr Biggers’ books.