Behind That Curtain by Earl Derr Biggers

As a mystery addict and a movie buff, I have always known of the Charlie Chan mysteries. I have heard much about the 1930’s series of Charlie Chan movies and Warner Oland’s legendary portrayal of the detective. As a result, I was quite curious about this detective series.

Behind That Curtain by Earl Derr Biggers is the third book in the Charlie Chan series. It was published in 1928.

Sir Frederic Bruce, the former head of Scotland Yard, is a man obsessed with the past. For fifteen years he has been searching for the answers to only two questions, “Why was Hilary Galt wearing a pair of Chinese slippers when he was found murdered in his own office?” and “How did young Eve Durand vanish without a trace from the hills of Peshawar?”. But before he can finally reveal the answers to these questions he is found dead and the Chinese slippers he was last seen wearing have mysteriously disappeared.

I loved the way Biggers manages to create a sinister picture of the past crimes. The description of Eve Durand’s disappearance was particularly creepy. It is easy to understand how Sir Frederic Bruce can become so obsessed with the unsolved murder and mysterious disappearances.

I liked Charlie Chan, despite him being portrayed as the stereotypical calm Buddha like ‘oriental’ man. I would like to read more of his adventures.

The character of Barry Kirk irritated me. The romance between Barry Kirk and June Morrow was boring and unnecessary.

I found Biggers’s treatment of his characters to be a bit strange. He makes Charlie Chan his main detective at the height of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Chan is portrayed as a gentleman and as a force of good. Of course, Chan is a stereotype who keeps spewing ancient Eastern adages but that’s not a major irritant. He had also made a deputy in the district attorney’s office, June Morrow, a woman, quite unusual for the novel’s era.

However at the same time, many of the book’s characters keep insulting them. Charlie Chan is called names and is belittled. I guess he tries to show how deeply racist people of that era were and how Chan rises above all of that. Miss Morrow is frequently lectured (a lot of the times by Charlie Chan himself) on the ‘proper’ place of a woman and of her ‘womanly’ duties. Barry Kirk and Kirk’s grandmother at first refuse to believe that a pretty girl could be a lawyer,

“Calm yourself. Miss Morrow is a very intelligent young woman.”

“She couldn’t be. She’s too good-looking.”

Everyone laments how she is ‘wasting’ her youth.  It is indicated at the end that she would give up her ‘wicked’ ways and settle down. It is kind of like if someone wrote a book on differently abled people and used derogatory terms to describe them.  Or if someone wrote a book on racism but used the ‘N’ word throughout the book. Why do all of the characters constantly have to remind the readers that Charlie Chan is a man of Chinese origin and that Miss Morrow is a woman? This undermines whatever good Biggers may have done by creating Charlie Chan and Miss June Morrow.

The actual solution is a bit disappointing. The link between the mysteries is weak to say the least. Why would anyone go to such great lengths to protect a rather lame secret is beyond me. Thankfully, at least one of the happy conclusions appealed to me. Otherwise it would have been a total bust.

Behind That Curtain has a great build-up that ends up disappointing a tad bit but overall the book is enjoyable.

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