Chan Canned
The mystery of the ethnic detectives.


S. T. Karnick

Visitors to the Fox Movie Channel website were treated to a rather puzzling but vivid example of ethnic politics and corporate cowardice a few weeks ago:

Fox Movie Channel will discontinue the broadcast of the Charlie Chan mystery films.

. . . Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today. As a result of the public response to the airing of these films, Fox Movie Channel will remove them from the schedule.

In the hope that this action will evoke discussion about the progress made in our modern, multicultural society, we invite you to please click CONTACT US to send us your thoughts on the matter.

A couple of weeks later, the following message appeared on the FMC website: “The Fox Movie Channel will schedule Charlie Chan films based on feedback from our subscribers.” About a week later, that sentence was removed. After a while, it came back again.

Fox ultimately relented and resumed running some of the Chan films, but only temporarily, and entirely without fanfare–obviously hoping to avoid more confrontations. The films are now off the air, at least for the time being. In addition, as a sop to the protestors, each showing this summer was bookended by a taped discussion segment, hosted by former Star Trek actor George Takei, in which “a group of prominent Asian-Americans,” as the host described them, explained just what it is that makes these seemingly innocuous films so dangerous.

You’ve heard the drill before, of course, so I won’t repeat their complaints here, other than to note that the biggest grievance still seems to be that the great detective was played by non-Asian actors, and that the films that these “prominent Asian-Americans” or their friends are making nowadays don’t make as much money as those by the Wachowski brothers. Boo hoo.

This sort of conflict is, as you will have noticed, becoming increasingly common as America breaks apart more thoroughly into which I have called the Omniculture–a media-driven realm in which there is no agreed-upon central ethos, and where various groups fight in a Hobbesian struggle to garner for themselves as much social power as possible. The furious battle against something as apparently trivial as Charlie Chan films is a harbinger of our future.

It seems likely that Fox will eventually release the Chan films on DVD, having gone to the expense of restoring them before their aborted slate of showings this summer, but the FMC decision is nonetheless both cowardly and curious. It is a pity that such blatantly senseless bullying is going on, because the fictional depiction of detectives who belong to ethnic minorities typically benefits both the ethnic group itself and the rest of us.

As I noted earlier this year, “In his best films, Charlie [Chan] is an almost ideal human being, in terms of personal character: wise, calm, observant, humble, polite, patient, affectionate, and generous, but also, when necessary, crafty, devious, and merciless.” In addition, “the films very seldom take any explicit notice of Chan’s ethnicity, and in the few instances when someone other than Charlie himself does so, it is presented as very bad form.”

Given that the detective is usually the moral center of a given mystery story, the fictional depiction of a successful sleuth certainly lends cultural credence to the ethnic group to which he belongs. Regardless of the ethnic background of the actor depicting such a character, placing a person from a particular group at the center of a film series can certainly make a contribution, however incremental, to that group’s integration into the surrounding society.

Perhaps that begins to solve the mystery of why these political exploiters of ethnic sensitivities want to ban Charlie Chan and other such fare. Integration into the surrounding society means that they will lose their power base. Unlike these race baiters and their flunkies at Fox Movie Channel, I shall unreservedly recommend a steady diet of Charlie Chan and other “ethnic” detectives for those inclined toward such pleasures. Here listed are some excellent ones with which to start.

The best source of classic 1930s and ’40s stories about ethnic detectives–which do not suffer from modern-day pusillanimity and smarminess–is the excellent crime-fiction publisher Crippen & Landru, run by the eminent mystery scholar Douglas G. Green. C&L publishes only collections of mystery short stories, and the firm’s “Lost Classics” series provides compilations of unjustly neglected tales from the golden age of detective fiction that have never been collected in book form.

Among the many excellent entries in the C&L list are those by the veteran mystery short-story master Edward Hoch–author of several hundred stories. One of Hoch’s series presents tales of Michael Vlado, a Gypsy living in Romania who, in the course of the saga, becomes king of his tribe. In The Iron Angel, published earlier this year, C&L presents a good sampling of Vlado stories, including eight of the first ten, and fifteen in total.

Like most of Hoch’s protagonists, Vlado is both immensely likeable and a brilliant detective. The stories in the present volume were written between 1985 and 2000, and Hoch convincingly portrays Romania both during and after the Communist era, as Vlado tries to keep order among his people during those two very different but equally difficult times. As in nearly all of Hoch’s work, the puzzles in the Vlado stories are presented fairly, with all clues made available to the reader, and Vlado solves the cases through logical deduction. The stories also include well-written action sequences and interesting moral conflicts, with Vlado emerging as an entirely believable, laudable, and complex character.

The prolific French novelist George Simenon, best known for his Inspector Maigret mysteries, produced a series of short stories in 1929 and 1930 that detail the detections of Monsieur Froget, an “Examining Magistrate” in the slums of Paris. Crippen & Landru has published a baker’s dozen of these tales, which were collected in book form in French in 1932 but had never been translated into English until now. The Thirteen Culprits consists of short, simple narratives with very simple mysteries, but Simenon makes these tales quite interesting through sheer story-telling skill. Particularly impressive are the author’s observations of small, telling details, the same technique his detective uses to solve the cases.

As in the Columbo TV movies, the question in the Froget stories is not who is guilty, but how the detective will prove it. The books are particularly interesting for their look at the French legal system and the ubiquity of human motives such as greed, jealousy, and desire for social status.

Even more hard-boiled are the Jo Gar stories of Raoul Whitfield, a widely admired pulp-fiction author of the 1920s and early ’30s who is nearly forgotten today, and quite unjustly. The Crippen & Landru collection Jo Gar’s Casebook redresses some of that neglect by reprinting 18 previously uncollected tales, most of which originally appeared in the landmark pulp-fiction magazine Black Mask. Though physically small, Jo Gar is both a traditional-style intellectual detective and a man of action. His mean streets are those of Manila, and his ethnic background–Spanish and Filipino–reflects the multiethnic nature of that steamy, grimy, chaotic town in the years between the two world wars.

Gar is a guileful, insightful man who understands the ways and desires of the various ethnic cultures that inhabit the region, and he uses this knowledge to solve the crimes that confront him. Like Charlie Chan, he is basically polite and mild-mannered, but in his status as a private detective he is in constant conflict with the local police, and corruption at all levels of society is a strong motif in the stories. Whitfield’s combination of puzzle, action, sweat, and perfidy makes these stories an excellent introduction to the Black Mask style of detective fiction and an excellent read in their own right.

Inspector Chafik J. Chafik of the Baghdad police is a quite different though equally impressive character. In The Sleuth of Baghdad, C&L has collected 15 of the 34 stories British author and former military-intelligence officer Charles B. Child wrote about this character for American magazines between 1947 and 1969. The importance of Islam in the society is handled well, as is the influence of British ideas and institutions.

Short of stature, very thin, and very religious, Chafik is humble, quiet, well mannered, and industrious. He has a habit of unconsciously speaking his thoughts aloud, and operates by meticulous detection followed by ingenious deduction. Although he is a police official, Chafik often dispenses justice himself rather than bring the case into the justice system, just as Sherlock Holmes. Unlike most of the other authors mentioned here, Child lets us know a good deal about his detective’s family life, which helps us understand a bit more about the realities of postwar Baghdad and allows us to see some of the hopes and dreams we somehow share with a wise and humble Middle Eastern man who lives by his mind in a world of widespread poverty and despair. As a result, the stories are quite fascinating to read today.

South African author (and journalist, and opponent of apartheid) Peter Godfrey wrote hundreds of short stories starting in the late 1940s. His best-known creation is the homicide squad of the Cape Town C.I.D., which is assisted by lawyer and psychologist Rolf Le Roux. “Oom” (Uncle) Rolf is a classic intellectual detective, likeable and enigmatic, and the stories collected in Crippen & Landru’s The Newtonian Egg and Other Cases of Rolf Le Roux are near-perfect expressions of the form. The puzzles are audacious and astounding, including some utterly brain-boiling impossible crimes.

For example, there is a murder evidently committed by the poisoning of a perfectly sealed hard-boiled egg, a man who loses 52 minutes from his life, and the particularly ingenious murder of a man who is alone in a cable car hanging high above the ground. Oom Rolf’s insights into human nature, and thence into the crimes, are quite incisive, and Godfrey’s depiction of South Africa under apartheid is fascinating and fair.

Another publisher that is bringing classical-era detective fiction back into print is the Rue Morgue Press, and the 1942 American novel Murder, Chop Chop, by journalist James Norman, is a terrific story set in China in 1938, during the Japanese occupation. The book is perfectly fascinating in its bringing together of a wide variety of ethnic groups and social classes around a very puzzling murder mystery. The detective is Gimiendo Hernandez Quinto, a gigantic Mexican who rode with Pancho Villa and is training guerilleros for the Nationalist Chinese government.

In addition to the interesting depictions of the Mexican Quinto, the Chinese locals (who are presented in fascinating detail and variety), the Japanese occupiers, and various Brits, Scots, and Americans, Norman provides a knotty puzzle, numerous fast-moving action sequences, insights into China and its history and philosophies, and a fascinatingly complex romance between Quinto and Mountain of Virtue, a beautiful Eurasian woman who seems to be working for all sides simultaneously. It’s a corker of a story, and someone really ought to make a movie of it right away.

Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot has provided the inspiration for many movies, but there is only one definitive Poirot, and that is David Suchet, who starred in numerous one- and two-hour adaptations produced by Britain’s ITV network and partners in America and elsewhere between 1989 and the present. In these well-produced, highly atmospheric episodes set largely in the 1930s and ’40s, Suchet’s portrayal of the diminutive Belgian is dazzlingly vivid. His Poirot is meticulous, even fussy, but strong-willed, brilliantly insightful (of course), and relentless in his pursuit of justice.

Acorn Media has brought several seasons’ worth of episodes out on video and DVD, and, given that the earliest productions, the one-hour ones, have proven to be the best (though nearly all are quite good), I would suggest starting with Acorn Media’s “Blue,” “Bronze,” and “Green” sets, each of which collects six episodes on two DVDs or six tapes.

There are, of course, many other “ethnic” detectives worthy of investigation, but the ones listed here will give you a very good start on the genre. I should advise you to get to them fast, before they’re banned.

S. T. Karnick is editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO Contributor.