Masters of Mystery Monday: Charlie Chan


Welcome to Masters of Mystery Monday, where each week we feature a fictional detective and examine his or her unique contribution to the mystery genre.  You are invited to challenge yourself with a short detective quiz, and see the answers to the previous week’s quiz. Today we’re revisiting a Master Detective from an earlier post:

Charlie Chan

Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, by permission of
Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, by permission of


About Charlie Chan:

Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective in the Honolulu police, was the creation of Earl Derr Biggers, first appearing in The House Without a Key (1925).  Biggers wrote six novels in the series, which were well-received.

But it was in screen portrayals that Charlie Chan truly became popular.  Two actors played the detective in 26 films: Warner Oland, a Swedish actor, and Sidney Toler, an American.  Audiences in the 30s and 40s were resistant to Asian lead actors in anything but villainous, “Fu Manchu” type of roles.  Even with a Caucasian playing Charlie Chan, the portrayals have him speaking in broken English, and acting submissive and self-effacing (sort of like Columbo), as a way to make him seem less “uppity” and threatening.

Although it’s a legitimate criticism that such portrayals reinforced stereotypes of the “Oriental,” for this detective character it works: the culprit invariably underestimates the detective, and slips up.  Check the YouTube video clip, below, to see the mannerisms at work.  The films are classics, and co-star such greats as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

What is there to love about Charlie Chan?  I can only speak from my own experience, but I loved the dualities of his character: traditionalist, spouting ancient Chinese nuggets of wisdom while chastising his harum-scarum “number one son;” flexible in his thinking; polite, yet tough as nails when cornering the bad guys; self-effacing, yet smart.  All in all, he was comfortable in his own skin.


Links for more info:

Want the answers to last week’s quiz?

1. Sherlock Holmes is partly modeled after a person in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life.  His name was:

O) Han Solo
P) Dr. Joseph Bell – Doyle was influenced by medical school professor Dr. Joseph Bell, who astounded his students by deducing the lifestyle habits and work occupations of new patients coming to the class for diagnosis.  Han Solo was busy fighting storm troopers at the time.
Q) Dr. Joseph Whittingham
R) Oliver Wendell Holmes

2. Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, favored this method of detection:

U) examining physical evidence, such as footprints and tobacco ash

V) using the little gray cells – Poirot claimed to study human nature, or the psychology of people, murderer and victim alike, in order to achieve the solution.

W) beating a confession out of the murderer

X) relying on eyewitness testimony


3. Nancy Drew had two friends (who were probably jealous of her cool red roadster!) who acted as her sidekicks and assisted in her investigations.  They were:

D) Porgy and Bess

E) Bess and George – both are girls, by the way.  Ned Nickerson – love the name – was her sort-of boyfriend, when a manly presence was needed.

F) George and Ned

G) John and Yoko



4. True or False:  the character of Charlie Chan was never successfully played by an Asian in the films.  False, although the most successful ones were not Asian.

5. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not knighted for his creation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but for something much more important to the empire.  What was it?  Doyle served in the Boer War (although he was too old, he volunteered as a field doctor) and wrote a pamphlet “The War in South Africa: its Cause and Conduct” which staunchly defended Great Britain’s role in the war.  Doyle himself believed this pamphlet was the reason he was knighted.  I’ll bet creating Sherlock Holmes didn’t hurt, either.

Be your own “Master of Mystery: take this week’s quiz!

1. Who were the smartest of the Scooby-Doo gang?

  • Scooby and Shaggy
  • Velma and Fred
  • Daphne and Fred
  • Batman and Robin

2. Who is Agatha Christie’s best-known female sleuth? (hint: she likes to knit)

  • Mrs. Beeton
  • Jessica Fletcher
  • Miss Pym
  • Miss Marple

3. True or False: Sherlock Holmes was once bested by a woman.

4. True or False: one of the classic British detectives wore a monocle.

5. What famous fiction private eye said: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter”?

  • Sam Spade
  • Phillip Marlowe
  • Mickey Spillane
  • Raymond Chandler

Have you seen any of the Charlie Chan films?  What’s your opinion of how he is portrayed?  I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for joining me today.  See you soon!



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10 thoughts on “Masters of Mystery Monday: Charlie Chan”

  1. Clay MorganClay Morgan

    Cool stuff once more. I love the Columbo reference. He’s a fixture in my life believe it or not. I have been crushed this week and missed so many posts but am really glad you showed me this one. Love the way this site is going!

  2. Tiffany A WhiteTiffany A White

    Ooo, another great one. I didn’t know about Charlie Chan. I love learning about new detectives!

  3. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    I love the quizzes! I know most of this stuff, but when I don’t, I learn something new. 🙂

  4. florence foisflorence fois

    KB … Jenny Hansen sent me over from her FB page and I am thrilled. I am a lover of all the Charlie Chan movies and whenever PBS runs a marathon I can’t wait to see them. Haven’t yet bought the DVD’s but recently found a collection of five of the books. Your blog is a wonderful discovery for me as I am a crazed noir fan, mystery lover of every type and love your quizes. (couldn’t get in to answer the one posted) … Thanks for the memories 🙂

  5. Tim L O'BrienTim L O'Brien

    KB – Really enjoyed this post and all the Master of Mystery Monday’s as well. Many thanks!


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