The Chinese-American detective from Honolulu, Charlie Chan, is probably the best known creation of author Earl Derr Biggers. If and when we remember Biggers today, it is primarily for the six books that introduced Charlie to the world - and those of us who are old enough to have seen on late-night television many of the movies about Charlie Chan (very few of them based on the books by Biggers) know what a delightful character he was. But more than a decade before the first Charlie Chan book, Biggers wrote another clever and still entertaining book, best described, I think, as a mild thrller, called Seven Keys to Baldpate. This week in Honolulu, as the writers and mystery readers attending the Left Coast Crime conference pause to pay tribute to their "Ghost of Honor," Earl Derr Biggers, I would like to call their, and your, attention to Seven Keys to Baldpate. It's the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The book tells the story of Billy Magee, a successful young author who has made a career for himself of writing melodramas and such, but whose real ambition is to write The Great American Novel. Like most writers, Billy feels he can't do it unless he can get away from everyone and everything and just sit down and write! A friend of his, who owns a secluded hotel in rural New Jersey, suggests that Billy go off to that very large and very deserted hotel, called Baldpate. It's winter time, and there is nobody at the place, which is all locked up for the winter. Armed with what appears to be the only key, Billy sets out for Baldpate. The caretaker (who doesn't live there) takes him to the deserted hotel. He finds it cold and empty, manages to build a fire, and settles down to think about writing.
And that's when the deserted hotel's house telephone rings in his room...
Billy is about to learn that his key isn't the only one. - there are, as the title explains, Seven Keys to Baldpate. there's a sudden and rather surprising (to Billy, anyway) love interest, all sorts of plots and counterplots, and a rather surprising number of people turning up at a supposedly deserted lodge. So what is going on at Baldpate? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Will Billy Magee ever get anywhere with that novel – considering that he came to Baldpate in the first place to get away from melodrama? Stay tuned.
It's a thriller - a rather mild one, I must say - and there are some social and cultural attitudes that may make some readers cringe as the characters debate, for example, whether women should have the right to vote. But Seven Keys to Baldpate has earned a lot of popularity since its first appearance in 1913. It was turned into a play and made into a movie seven times (generally NOT following the plot of the book) and adapted for radio and television; the play still turns up from time to time as a favorite of community theater groups. The book is long out of copyright, and it's readily available in electronic and/or print formats. For my friends visiting Left Coast Crime this week, it's another insight into the mind of the man who created one of the best-loved movie detectives of all time. Give it a try.