Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Talk - Nathan Heller and Charlie Chan

 While on our recent trip to Hawaii, one of the books I chose to read was Max Allan Collins' 1996 Nathan Heller novel, "Damned in Paradise".  I chose this one because it just so happens to take place in Hawaii, so why not read it when we are actually there, right?

Like all the Heller novels, this one is based on an actual crime, the so called "Massie case" that took place in Hawaii in 1931-32.  In involves the alleged rape of the wife of an American navel officer stationed in Pearl Harbor by a gang of native Hawaiians, and the subsequent murder of one of the suspects by the mother and husband of the victim.  The actual defense attorney in the case was the famous Clarence Darrow, and, of course, for the purposes of this story, Darrow has hired Nate Heller, at the time still a young member of the Chicago police force, as his chief investigator as he prepares for trial.

As he does with all these stories, Collins sticks to the main facts of the actual case, but manipulates history just enough to create a fun and entertaining story.  Another story in the Nate Heller series that I would highly recommend.  And as with all of these stories, there are many real historical figures included.  Besides Darrow and the principals of the Massie case, the story also features a Honolulu police detective named Chang Apana, and the interesting thing about Apana is that he is said to have been the inspiration to author Earl Derr Biggers for his famous fictional detective, Charlie Chan.

Upon finishing "Damned in Paradise", I was prompted to search Amazon for this book, "The House Without a Key" which was the first Chan novel that Biggers wrote.  In fact, Biggers wrote only six Chan novels.  "The House Without a Key" was published in 1925, and the style of the writing is a bit, shall we say, dated.  Charlie Chan himself is also almost a minor character in the novel, but it is set in Hawaii, so it was a fun read while vacationing there.

Reading this also made me remember the great "Charlie Chan Theater" which ran for a couple of years as a late night movie on Channel 4, WTAE, in Pittsburgh, and was hosted by Dave Crantz back in the early 1970's.  The fact that Hollywood cranked out dozens and dozens of these Chan movies in the '30s and '40s made for easy and no doubt cheap programming for a Saturday late night movie.  The movies starred Warner Oland and, later, Sidney Toler as Chan and were lighthearted and fun movies, although probably so politically incorrect (as were, no doubt, Crantz' introductory and commercial break commentaries) that they are seldom shown today.

Anybody else out there remember watching those movies on Channel 4?

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