Number One Detective, Charlie Chan

Jun 16, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sandra Murphy

by Sandra Murphy

Father’s Day seemed a perfect time to have an article about a famous father in mystery books and movies, Charlie Chan.

Charlie Chan came to life in 1925, via the imagination of Earl Derr Biggers. In all, there were six Charlie Chan books, five made into movies. Biggers died of a heart attack on April 5, 1933 at age forty-nine.

The Charlie Chan mysteries were inspired in part, by a trip with his wife to Hawaii. In researching the idea some time later, he found a short paragraph in the newspaper about an addict who had been arrested in Honolulu. Hawaiian police Sergeant Charlie Chan was born as a result.

Biggers knew that most Chinese were portrayed as evil at the time (the 1920s) and decided Chan would be a benevolent but wise policeman in order to change public perception. From 1925 through 1929, a different actor played Chan in each film. None of them were really Chinese (the first was Swedish). In 1931, Warner Oland took over the role, followed by Sidney Toler (1938-1947), and Roland Winters (1947-1949).

During the war years, the movies focused on spies and secret weapons to combat the Nazis. If CSI shows DNA and other test results obtained at warp speed, it’s nothing compared to Charlie’s suggestion that the 1944 “police lab analyze right away.” The lab man quickly checks, dry ice smoke swirls and the solution is found. Chan never fails.

The basic plot doesn’t vary much. The police call on Charlie for difficult cases, many of which involve tailing suspects after dark, in the fog or through dimly lit basements and secret passages. Charlie is aided or held back, depending, by one of his many children (he had fourteen) and his driver, Birmingham Brown, who plays the role for comic effect with great success. In spite of themselves, they do manage to help and the crime is quickly solved. Chan always apologizes for them, scolds them and then turns away to hide his smile. In one case, Tommy is hurt and we see a father’s desperation as Chan digs his son from the rubble of an explosion.

The public fell in love with the Chinese/American detective. There were books, a stage play, a radio series, a comic strip, and a short lived animated children’s series—all from a vacation to Hawaii and a paragraph in the newspaper.

Authors are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” As Biggers proved, it’s not just where you get them, but what you do with them when you do.

On Netflix basic, there are six Chan movies. Each is about an hour long.

Charlie Chan, Meeting at Midnight
–With the help of one of his daughters, Charlie solves the murder of a phony psychic who had been blackmailing his clients. Hypnosis is involved and the villain nearly makes Chan step off a tall building! (1944)

Charlie Chan, The Chinese Cat–Charlie investigates a murder, diamond theft and a seaside house of horrors at the amusement park. (1944)

Charlie Chan, The Secret Service—this movie revolves around plot to steal secret weapons from the US government. The inventor of the weapon is killed but where is the weapon? (1944)

Charlie Chan, The Jade Mask—another brilliant scientist has been murdered and his formula for making wood as strong as steel has gone missing. (1945)

The Scarlet Clue—A look behind the scenes at a radio soap opera. The actors bully and blackmail their way into larger parts while the sponsor threatens to pull the show. Two actors die, Chan and his two helpers, #4 son Tommy and chauffeur Birmingham Brown come close to losing their lives more than once. (1945)

The Shanghai Cobra—a series of murders baffle the police but Chan finds they are being killed with cobra venom—even though there are no snakes involved! Can it all lead back to the production of radium? (1945)

Complete list of movies:
The House Without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1927)
Behind That Curtain (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1931)
The Black Camel (1931)
Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932)
Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933)
Charlie Chan’s Courage (1934)
Charlie Chan in London (1934)
Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)
Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935)
Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)
Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)
Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937)
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)
Charlie Chan in Reno (1939)
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939)
City in Darkness (1939)
Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)
Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940)
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940)
Murder Over New York (1940)
Dead Men Tell (1941)
Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)
Castle in the Desert (1942)
“Charlie Chan in the Secret Service” (1944)
The Chinese Cat (1944)
Black Magic, aka Meeting at Midnight (1944)
The Jade Mask (1945)
The Scarlet Clue (1945)
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
The Red Dragon (1945)
Dark Alibi (1946)
Shadows Over Chinatown (1946)
Dangerous Money (1946)
The Trap (1947)
The Chinese Ring (1947)
Docks of New Orleans (1948)
The Shanghai Chest (1948)
The Golden Eye (1948)
The Feathered Serpent (1948)
The Sky Dragon (1949)

Charlie Chan books by Biggers:
The House Without a Key New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925.
The Chinese Parrot New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926.
Behind That Curtain New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.
The Black Camel New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.
Charlie Chan Carries On New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930.
Keeper of the Keys New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1932

Sandra Murphy lives in the shadow of the arch, in the land of blues, booze and shoes—St Louis, Missouri. While writing magazine articles to support her mystery book habit, she secretly polishes two mystery books of her own, hoping, someday, they will see the light of Barnes and Noble. You can also find several of Sandra’s short stories on UnTreed Reads including her new one Bananas Foster.


  1. I remember the Charlie Chan movies playing on TV when I was a kid. My brother and I thought they were great and I vaguely my father, not known for his sense of humor, calling my brother #1 son. Nice to know the background.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this Sandra, especially so near Father’s Day. When I was growing up, my dad & I would always watch the Charlie Chan movies together on the weekends. My dad passed away many years ago, but hubby & I have continued the tradition when we can. Thanks for reminding me of some sweet memories with my dad 🙂



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