Stalking Charlie Chan

As a teenager, I went through a serious Sherlock Holmes phase. So, until I read Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, which is due out this month from Norton, I thought I'd seen it all in terms of works about sleuths that blurred lines and crossed boundaries. As all recovering 221B Baker Street addicts know, when hooked on Holmes you don't just devour the classic whodunits. You move on to "biographies" of the master of deduction; books that treat the "lives" of Holmes and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with equal seriousness; and later novels like The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which have the detective "meet" bona fide historical figures (in that case Sigmund Freud). But even the most madcap Sherlockian mash-up pales when placed beside this "biography" of Charlie Chan.

It has a cover that suggests, misleadingly, that what we're in for is just a tale of two figures. In the bottom right corner, we see the aphorism-spouting Charlie Chan (as portrayed by Swedish actor Warner Oland), in the upper left a black-and-white shot of Chang Apana (the bullwhip-carrying Honolulu policeman upon whom novelist E.D. Biggers based his fictional Chinese crime-solver). We soon find out, though, that Huang has three other biographical fish to fry: Biggers (whom the author calls "Charlie Chan's Pop"), Oland (whose performances in "Yellow Face" made him a star), and Fu Manchu (dubbed here Chan's "evil twin").

A final person's life also figures centrally in the book: Yunte Huang's. We learn about his first encounters with English (listening to clandestine Voice of America radio broadcasts transmitted into his native China) and with the American Midwest (where he searched for clues about Biggers). And we get lovely first person set pieces, from a memoir of his visit to an exclusive Harvard club to which Charlie Chan's creator belonged, to a traveler's tale of Huang's search for Chang's Hawaiian tombstone.

This may seem too much for a single work, especially since Huang, a professor of English, mixes in some literary analysis, too. There are moments indeed when the book threatens to collapse under the weight of the author's ambitions, but it never quite does. Not all arguments work (I found unconvincing, for example, his treatment of the film "The China Syndrome," which has little to do with Asia, as a work that reinforced belittling stereotypes), but the book holds together surprisingly well overall. One reason is that the reader is propelled forward by the sense of joy Huang takes in everything from word play (he's clearly in love with as well as adept at using his second language) to hunting for clues about Chans and Changs of both the flesh-and-blood and fictional varieties (when he heads for Hawaii at last, you almost expect him to cry out: "The Games Afoot!").

Some readers will surely resist one of his claims: that even if, like him, you have experienced anti-Chinese prejudice, you should be able to take pleasure in rather than feel uncomfortable hearing Oland speak in a stilted "Confucius Say" manner -- provided he's saying witty things like "Murder, like potato chip, cannot stop at just one." Still, anyone who opens all the doors to this cabinet of curiosities of a book will end up finding many things at which to marvel.