The following is excerpted from the foreword to Classic American Crime Fiction of the 1920s, which includes five of the decade’s most famous crime novels—House Without a Key, The Benson Murder Case, The Roman Hat Mystery, Red Harvest, and Little Caesar.
While critics may argue over the exact parameters of the “Golden Age” of crime fiction, most place its beginning between 1908 and 1918 and sweep into its early pantheon writers such as Conan Doyle, E. C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, H. C. Bailey, Margery Allingham, and Josephine Tey—all notably English. All espoused the clue-based mystery, presenting puzzles for the readers to solve. After Anna Katharine Green, and with the sole exception of Mary Roberts Rinehart, no Americans achieved any fame until S. S. Van Dine, discussed below. As crime fiction historian Howard Haycraft, writing in 1942, put it: “[No American author] was doing work to compare with the exciting developments that were taking place in England. The American detective story stood still, exactly where it had been before the War.”
Earl Derr Biggers (1884–1933) was the first to buck that tide. A graduate of Harvard University, he would not have seemed a likely candidate to reinvigorate American crime fiction. He began his career as a journalist for the Boston Traveler, writing humorous columns and theatrical criticism. In 1913, however, he tried his hand at a mystery novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, which won an immediate following and became an immensely successful stage play, starring George M. Cohan, was filmed seven times, and was adapted for radio and television. Several other of his novels published in the 1910s also had elements of mystery. Biggers also wrote a stream of short stories between 1913 and 1920 for The Saturday Evening Post, The American Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal, though none were of any particular note.
For decades, the Chinese had been reviled in popular culture, especially in America. As early as 1880, P. W. Dooner wrote a little-known novel titled Last Days of the Republic, published in California—a hotbed of anti-Asian sentiment—depicting a United States under Chinese rule. The ‘evil Oriental genius’ first appeared in Western literature in 1892. Tom Edison Jr.’s Electric Sea Spider, or, The Wizard of the Submarine World, a “dime novel” published by the Nugget Library, features Kiang Ho, a Mongolian or Chinese (there is some confusion in the tale) Harvard-educated pirate-warlord. Ho, defeated by young Edison, was succeeded in 1896 by Yue-Laou, an evil Chinese sorcerer-ruler featured in The Maker of Moons series by the American writer Robert Chambers.
In 1898, English novelist M. P. Shiel wrote his most popular book, The Yellow Danger. The story tells of Dr. Yen How, who is half-Japanese/half-Chinese (“he combined these antagonistic races in one man”) and rises to power in China and fosters war with the West. Yen How is described as a physician educated at Heidelberg and was probably loosely based on the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen (also a physician). Yen How is defeated by the West in the person of Admiral John Hardy, a consumptive who overcomes his frailties to turn back the Yellow Danger.
Sax Rohmer’s short story “The Zayat Kiss” appeared in October 1912 in The Story-Teller, a popular magazine. It was well-received, and Rohmer wrote nine more stories in the initial series. In 1913, the series was collected in book form as The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (published as The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu in America). Fu Manchu appeared in two more series of stories before the end of the Great War, collected as The Devil Doctor (1916) (The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu in America) and Si-Fan Mysteries (1917) (The Hand of Fu Manchu in America).
By 1924, anti-Asian sentiments were at their peak when, with overwhelming support, the United States Congress passed, and President Calvin Coolidge signed, the Immigration Act (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act). The new law adopted the concept of national-origin quotas, limiting overall immigration to 150,000 persons per year, restricting immigration to 2 percent of the quantity of those nationals already present in the United States (according to the 1890 census), and completely prohibiting the immigration of those ineligible for U.S. citizenship. This last standard effectively barred half the world’s population and lumped Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Thais, Indonesians, and others into the category of “Asiatic.” Those Asiatics already living in the United States would be barred from citizenship and prevented from bringing other family members into the country.
In 1920, after exhausting himself with work on some very successful stage plays, Biggers traveled to Honolulu. He continued to write a variety of short stories having nothing to do with Hawaii, but he was apparently fascinated by the melting pot that was 1920s Honolulu. He conceived of a mystery set there, and in 1922 he described the work-in-progress to his editor as including “army people, traders, planters. An Americanized Chinese house boy—the star pitcher on the All-China baseball nine—the lawyer for the opium ring—an Admiral of the Fleet . . .—an old Yankee from New Bedford—a champion Hawaiian swimmer—beachcombers—. . . the president of a Japanese bank.” There was no mention of a detective. According to Biggers, in the summer of 1924, he stopped by the New York Public Library Reading Room, and while browsing through Hawaiian newspapers, he found an account of the Honolulu police. “In an obscure corner of an inside page, I found an item to the effect that a certain hapless Chinese, being too fond of opium, had been arrested by Sergeants Chang Apana and Lee Fook, of the Honolulu Police. So Sergeant Charlie Chan entered the story of The House Without a Key.”
Biggers was no racial crusader, and he certainly had no intention of creating a Chinese character who would fly in the face of American stereotypes or alter the public view of foreigners. Chan is decidedly different: He is described as a fat man, with the chubby cheeks of a baby; yet he walks with the dainty step of a woman. He has ivory skin, short black hair, and amber slanted eyes. He does not speak pidgin-English (as do several of the Japanese characters in the book); rather, he speaks his own brand of English, replete with aphorisms. In this respect, he is as foreign as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose speech is as distinctive as Chan’s. Chan also regularly displays his animosity toward the Japanese—a sentiment common in Hawaii in the 1920s and throughout America. In The House Without a Key, though he eventually appreciates Chan’s talents, the young Bostonian protagonist cannot erase his sense of a marked gulf between Chan and himself. In this, Biggers accurately reflected the realities facing the American people: Notwithstanding harsh policies such as the Immigration Act, the ethnic populations of America were here to stay.
First serialized in The Saturday Evening Post between January 24 and March 7, 1925, the adventures of Charlie Chan struck a chord with the Post’s readership. Here, at last, was an American crime writer worth reading, even if his tales were of a slightly less-than-American detective. The book publication of The House Without a Key occurred later in 1925, and over the next seven years, five more Chan novels appeared (all first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post): The Chinese Parrot (1926), Behind the Curtain (1928), The Black Camel (1929), Charlie Chan Carries On (1930), and Keeper of the Keys (1932). The novels were extremely popular and were adapted into films, cartoons, comic strips, and radio programs. The last Chan film was in 1947, and a cartoon series ran in 1972–73.
Howard Haycraft, in his masterful Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941), summed up the stories of the Chan series: “They are clean, humorous, unpretentious, more than a little romantic, and—it must be confessed—just a shade mechanical and old fashioned by modern plot standards. This absence of any novel or startling departure, in fact, is probably the reason that the first Chan story created no such popular or critical stir as the first Philo Vance case . . . and it was not until two or three of his adventures had appeared that he struck full stride. Once started, however, he has been difficult to stop. . . . Conventional as the narratives often were, Charlie Chan’s personal popularity played a part in the Renaissance of the American detective story that can not be ignored.”
By 1930, declared J. K. Van Dover, “Philo Vance was the American detective.” S. S. Van Dine’s books were consistent successes until, after publication of The Scarab Murder Case in 1930, the inevitable decline began. Who was this American phenomenon, the subject of twelve novels and seventeen films, yet barely remembered today? Between 1923 and 1924, Willard Huntington Wright (1888–1939), former editor of The Smart Set and a well-regarded art critic, became ill and read widely in crime fiction. Determined to make his fortune at fiction but anxious to preserve his “high-brow” reputation, he adopted the pseudonym “S. S. Van Dine” (based, he said, probably facetiously, on an old family name and the convenient initials of a steamship). He conceived of the central figure and three plots, summarized them, and presented them to the acclaimed editor Maxwell Perkins, whose other authors included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and John P. Marquand. Perkins was impressed and immediately bought them for the Scribner’s house. The rest was publishing history.
Van Dine had devised his own “rules” for crime fiction and set out to create a detective with a unique style. Some suggest that the character was intended to out-Holmes Holmes, with a deeper erudition and knowledge of useful trivia. A more likely model is Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, complete with the affected speech of an upper-class Englishman, a pince-nez, a robust collection of wine and modern art, and a butler. In either case, Philo Vance was established as a New York bachelor, with an inherited fortune and the taste to spend it wisely. Accompanied by his attorney, himself “S. S. Van Dine,” Vance partnered with New York District Attorney John F.-X. Markham to solve murders—and only murders. The Vance novels are long by the standards of Agatha Christie and are paced slowly, and they include numerous details about the panoply of suspects and the settings.
Vance insists that physical evidence is of much less importance than understanding “the exact psychological nature of the deed.” He maintains that understanding the deep-seated urges of seemingly respectable individuals and recognizing their unique psychological signatures is enough to identify a murderer. Vance frequently makes fun of Markham and the police for the logical conclusions they draw from “clues” and circumstantial evidence. Yet despite Van Dine’s ignorance of ballistics and other burgeoning forensic sciences and Vance’s disdain for police investigations, there are masses of physical evidence in each book; in The Benson Murder Case, for example, Vance relies heavily on tracing the path of the murderous bullet to demonstrate the height of the killer as well as astutely reasoning out the killer’s hiding place for the murder weapon.“Philo Vance makes no apologies for his privileged lifestyle. In the Jazz Age none was needed, as Willard had rightly concluded. A man who knew how to spend his money, a know-it-all with style, had automatic appeal.”
Why did Van Dine succeed—at least, while he succeeded? Certainly no one could like Philo Vance. Ogden Nash famously quipped, “Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance,” and Van Dine appreciated the joke, incorporating it into a footnote in a later novel. An effete white upper-class snob, living in a Manhattan that seemed devoid of life above 120th Street, Vance moved among the rich and famous, a set well-known to Willard Wright. Undoubtedly Van Dine’s skill as a writer, his ability to bring a finely-honed purpose and polished literacy to the genre, played a significant part. Another factor was that despite the fantasy that was Vance’s life, there was verisimilitude and a certain realism: The first two novels were based on actual unsolved murders that had stunned and fascinated New Yorkers. Perhaps the American public yearned for an urban experience more familiar than Biggers’s Hawaii/California milieu or the undistinguished locales of many of Rinehart’s books. Certainly New York featured prominently in all of Van Dine’s books and was central to many of the Ellery Queen mysteries as well. Perhaps the public reveled in tales of the upper classes. Until Black Tuesday in 1929, princes of Wall Street and the effervescence of the stock markets, which touched rich and poor alike, entranced the American public. John Loughery observes, “Philo Vance makes no apologies for his privileged lifestyle. In the Jazz Age none was needed, as Willard had rightly concluded. A man who knew how to spend his money, a know-it-all with style, had automatic appeal.”
Dashiell Hammett was at a loss to understand Van Dine’s success. He wrote a scathing review of The Benson Murder Case in the Saturday Review of Literature for January 15, 1927: “. . . The murderer’s identity becomes obvious quite early in the story. The authorities, no matter how stupid the author chose to make them, would have cleared up the mystery promptly if they had been allowed to follow the most rudimentary police routine. But then what would there have been for the gifted Vance to do? This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong. . . .”
Hammett’s own time would come in only a few years, but for the time being, in the late 1920s and through the mid-1930s, the European style of puzzle-mystery dominated American crime fiction, and Willard Huntington Wright was the golden child of publishing and the king of American crime writers. Howard Haycraft credited Van Dine with bringing the American detective story to “a new peak of excellence and popularity,” but observed that he did so by doing nothing more than mimic the well-established English tradition. In the end, the pretentiousness and lack of humor of the novels would outweigh readers’ initial fascination. Vance’s erudition became displayed more and more in large and often gratuitous segments that slowed down the tales, and the snob appeal wore thin. By 1939, when Wright died, both he and Vance had worn out their welcome, and except for the long-lived Ellery Queen mysteries, Van Dine–style stories had been largely replaced by the “hard-boiled” realism of Hammett and others.
Excerpted from Leslie S. Klinger’s foreword to Classic American Fiction of the 1920s. Copyright © 2018. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.