Finding Inspiration in Every Turn
Earl Derr Biggers
(August 26, 1884 – April 5, 1933)
The son of Robert J. and Emma E. (Derr) Biggers, Earl Derr Biggers was born in Warren, Ohio, and graduated from Harvard University in 1907, where he was a member of The Lampoon. He worked as a journalist for The Plain Dealer before turning to fiction.
Earl Derr Biggers was an American novelist and playwright. His novels featuring the fictional Chinese
American detective Charlie Chan was adapted into popular films made in the United States and China.
Earl Derr Biggers waited nearly his whole life to achieve literary success; just eight years before his death he did, with the creation of a legendary detective figure named Charlie Chan.
Very little is known about Biggers' childhood, other than he was born in Warren, Ohio to Robert J. and Emma E. Derr Biggers. The next we hear of him, he is writing short stories and taking assignments for Boston newspapers while in college. In 1907, he graduated from Harvard; one year later, he accepted a job writing a humorous newspaper column for the Boston Traveller. Biggers was not happy as a comedic writer, though, and was grateful to be promoted in 1909 to Drama Editor at the same paper. He held that position for three years until he was let go in 1912 for writing brutally honest (and often unkind) reviews of plays; it must have been an act of fate, though, because that same year he began his first novel - Seven Keys to Baldplate. On the day it was accepted for publishing, Biggers proposed to Eleanor Ladd, his girlfriend and fellow writer at the Traveller. She accepted.
The couple was married in 1914; that same year, Biggers produced a play entitled You're Only Human, and one year afterward, his son Robert was born. For the next eleven years, Biggers' career followed a steady and modestly successful path paved with books, plays, and short story publications.
It was in 1925 that he entered the final -- and most successful -- phase of his career; in The House Without a Key, Biggers introduced his readers to a Chinese-Hawaiian-American detective named Charlie Chan. House first ran in the Saturday Evening Post and became so popular, the magazine later paid Biggers $25,000 for exclusive serial rights to another Chan story.
Chan is perhaps best known for the broken-English sayings he recited, like: "All mischief comes from opening the mouth," from Charlie Chan Carries On. Though the character was not overly intelligent or sophisticated, Biggers saw him as both wise and intuitive. "If I understand Charlie correctly, he has an idea that if you understand a man's character you can nearly predict what he is apt to do in any set of circumstances."
Biggers wrote five more novels about the detective over the next eight years. The character adapted well to the silver screen; twenty-eight movies were eventually made featuring Chan, though most were written by people other than Biggers.
Unfortunately, Biggers' career was cut short when he suffered a heart attack in 1933. On April 5, he died at home in California. Earl Derr Biggers' legacy remains, though, in the character of Charlie Chan -- an unlikely hero who changed the course of his author's life. "I am quite sure that I never intended to travel the road of the mystery writer," says Biggers. "Nor did I deliberately choose to have in the seat at my side, his life forever entangled with mine…Yet here I am, and with me Charlie Chan. Thank heaven he is amiable, philosophical -- a good companion. For I know now that he and I must travel the rest of the journey together."
© 2004 ThinkTV Network - Greater Dayton Public Television
Books by Earl Derr Biggers
The House Without a Key (1925)
The Chinese Parrot (1926)
Behind That Curtain (1928)
The Black Camel (1929)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1930)
Keeper of the Keys (1932)