“The koa-wood key has reached me and it is a lovely thing – but that was to be expected, since it came from Hawaii.”
“I am proud of the friends I have made in the Islands and prouder of this key than of anything that has happened to me in 20 years of writing. I was eager to draw a true picture of Hawaii, but was not entirely confident of success. “
“I was only a malihini, a stranger, and what would the thousands who had known and loved the islands for many years think of the story? That I did not entirely fail, this gift is proof, and that is only one of the reasons why I shall always prize it highly.”
“I should add at once that my long delay in writing you was due to the fact that the key was only just reached me, having traveled to New York, and thence back to the coast.”
“Most people who have been to Hawaii long to return, and in the future I shall long a bit more ardently than most. I hope before many months I shall be able to do so.”
“In the meantime I want all those who had anything to do with the key to know that their thought of me has touched my heart. Please than them all for me.”
“Their unexpected, graceful gift is characteristic of Hawaii, and just another proof that he who has friends in the islands is rich indeed.” (Star-Bulletin, June 19, 1925)
The thank you letter above was written by Earl Derr Biggers and sent to the Hawaii Tourist Bureau in 1925.
On January 24, 1925, ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ began its serialization of the book that would make Earl Derr Biggers famous: The House Without a Key, the first of the Charlie Chan series.
The principal character in the story was Charlie Chan, the celebrated Chinese detective. Chan was modeled after Chang Apana. In 1897, Helen Kīna‘u Wilder was given the authority to enforce animal cruelty laws. She was appointed a special constable by the Marshall of the Republic of Hawai‘i.
She and her friends pooled their resources to pay a salary to hire Chang Apana, the first officer to investigate animal crimes, who inspired author Earl der Biggers’ popular Charlie Chan series of detective novels. (Hawaiian Humane Society)
Born Ah Ping Chang on December 26, 1871 in Waipiʻo, Oʻahu; he eventually became known as Chang Apana (the Hawaiianized version of the Chinese name Ah Ping.) In 1898, Chang joined the Honolulu Police Department and the “shrewd and meticulous investigator” rose through the ranks to become detective in 1916.
Biggers was an early guest at the Halekūlani Hotel in Waikiki. Biggers’ book title was based on his discovery that no one locked their doors there. In memory of the author and his novel, the Halekūlani named its seaside bar and lanai “House Without a Key.”
“’The House Without a Key’ is the story of a very rich man who has many enemies. He wants a certain locked chest in San Francisco cast into the sea – until it is beyond the reach of man he will know no peace.”
“He commissions his nephew to do the deed. But before the nephew reaches Honolulu the man is dead – murdered by an unknown assailant.”
“The secret of the chest. By mystery of the murder and the enmity that existed between the dead man and his brother furnish a lively plot”. (Stockton Independent, December 4, 1926)
The ”Decision to present the key to Biggers was made at a recent meeting of the tourist bureau, and arrangements for having it made were left to WH Hussman, Hawaii representative of the bureau.”
The key measures 25 inches in length and is six inches in width at both ends. It was made at the Hilo Boarding School manual training shop. (Star Bulletin, April 6, 1925)
“The present of the Hawaii Tourist Bureau was for a time displayed in Benson, Smith & Co.’s window, where it attracted much interest.” (Star-Bulletin, April 15, 1925)
Bigger’s book and subsequent movies helped to put Hawaii and one of its iconic hotels on the map.
The key had an inscription, “Hawaii is still the ‘House without a Key’: you have it. Use it often.” True to his word, Biggers would soon return to the Islands.
Earl Derr Biggers was born in 1884 in Warren, Ohio. He graduated from Harvard University in 1907 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After college, Biggers went to work at The Boston Traveler, where he wrote a humorous column, and then reviews, until 1911.
Biggers ultimately wrote six Charlie Chan mystery novels: The House Without A Key, The Chinese Parrot, Behind That Curtain, The Black Camel, Charlie Chan Carries On, and Keeper of the Keys.
The Charlie Chan movies were one of the most successful screen series in history, with over 40 movies based on the character. There were also numerous Chan radio adaptations and comic strips, as well as attempts to bring the character to television. Earl Biggers died in Pasadena, California, in April of 1933 at the age of 48, from a heart attack.