Buddy Read: The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

the house without a key


John suggested we read something new to both of us and we ended up choosing Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan series for our first buddy read. The story is set in Hawaii. I know right, the lush greenery and the ocean and sweet-smelling flowers, it felt as if I was in Hawaii. I imagined Steve McGarrett barging in and trying to solve the case. A Hawaii Five-O boss in an American Mystery Classics?? I call this ‘side-effects’ of lockdown. 😉

So let me not drag this post further with shop talk. It goes without saying this post contains spoilers. If you are planning to read this book in the near future, you might want to skip reading discussion of part 3.

There are a total of 23 chapters in The House Without a Key. We divided our discussion into three parts. Part 1 was the first seven chapters, Part 2 the next 8 and Part 3, the remaining 8 chapters.




Miss Minerva and Amos are the first two characters to appear in the story. Though she’s a ‘Miss’, I thought Amos to be her husband. She speaks of Dan and Grace. I was a little lost here. How are they all related to each other? It’s only later in the story we get to know Amos and Dan are brothers and Minerva is their cousin.  

Dan has quite a reputation on the island. He’s new muse is The Widow of Waikiki. It’s believed she drove her husband to his death. Dan is found dead a couple of weeks later. Kamaikui finds the brooch Dan gave Arlene Compton(the widow) on the lanai soon after Dan’s death. I wonder if there is some connection here – Arlene’s husband is dead and now her lover’s dead too? This cannot be a coincidence, right?  

I did not know how John Quincy fit in the story until Dan asks for his help. Steal the chest and throw it into the pacific? Someone gets their hands on the chest before John. I am guessing whatever was in the chest is what got Dan killed.  

Barbara and John, I suppose there is some love story in the making here. Also, what is the story behind John wanting his aunt Minerva to agree to his decision? I wonder what other mysteries John is going to reveal as the story proceeds.  

Charlie Chan had the least dramatic entries of all the mystery novels I read so far. It is as if he’s hardly present at the crime scene.  

I guess Rogers was the one who attacked John back in San Fransisco. I might be wrong though…  



The start of the book was quite leisurely and in some ways could easily have not turned into a detective story, possibly into a melodramatic novel instead. 

Dan has a shady past, but whether that is what has got him killed or whether it is something more recent, we can’t yet say. I hope we find out more about his 31-year-old feud with Amos as I don’t believe this was just a general falling out – there must be something more specific. 

I don’t see why Roger would have attacked John Quincy – Dan had written to him, not JQ so he could have taken the box earlier and then they could both just have found it gone. Anyway who is T.M.B. whose initials are on the mysterious box? What did Dan read in the newspaper that meant that something he had kept, presumably with some reason for so long, now needed to be destroyed? 

Has someone sailing on the President Tyler managed somehow to get ashore earlier and be involved in the murder? 

I liked Miss Minerva’s realisation that although she could see the luminous watch, its wearer had forgotten about this and thought they were undetected, thus allowing her to creep past safely – I’ve seen a luminous watch appear in an Ellery Queen under similar circumstances. 

I had a bit of a look into the history of Hawaii. Miss Minerva was there  in the 1880s when Kalakaua was on his golden throne. He was succeeded by  his sister Queen Lili’uokalani, who was effectively overthrown by a US  led coup d’etat in 1893. This resulted in Hawaii becoming a US territory in 1898, although as the book notes, there was impression among  islanders that 999 out of 1000 Americans did not realise it was part of  their country. 

I found it interesting that Miss Minerva thinks of ships bearing spices or ivory as coming from “the East” and that ships of tractor salesman are “eastward bound” even though they would actually be travelling west. 

Charlie Chan’s appearance is definitely low-key. The police captain takes the lead, but Amos does say that Charlie is the best detective on the force. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. 



What Dan read in the newspaper seems to be connected to the chest. Maybe this somebody was imprisoned and Dan reads in the paper they have been released out of prison. Anything is possible.  

Oh yes, the luminous watch!! The intruder wasn’t a pro after all! The watch is going to be the key to solving this murder. She also speaks of one of the numbers (2) glowing duller than the other numbers in the watch.  

Let’s see how Charlie Chan is going to solve this case. Amos speaks highly of Chan’s work.  



Yes – I’d thought of someone being released from prison and has now come back for vengeance.  

The criminal is unaware about the watch and so has no reason to get rid of it – assuming that person is the murderer – they may have come along later and hidden as they didn’t want to be found with the body. 




Charlie Chan is turning out to be my favourite detective. His cool as a cucumber nature reminds me of Inspector Littlejohn. When Minerva speaks to him about the brooch Kamaikui found in the lanai, he doesn’t reprimand her.  

Charlie and Hallet are opposites. Hallet is hot-blooded and controlling. Charlie is jovial, friendly and cool. I like the contrast here.  

I spoke about jilted lover yesterday and here we are! Mr Leatherbee. Somehow I am not convinced Leatherbee and Arlene are just friends. The brooch is what brought about a fight between the lovers. John realizes Arlene is still a very good actress so quite possible she’s lied about her alibi and all the things she’s told the police so far.  

Barbara’s fiance(I forgot his name) tells the police Dan was afraid of Egan. I do not want to believe this to be true. The fiance might be directing the police on the wrong path. He announces his marriage to Barbara – can inheritance be a reason for Dan’s murder?  The fiance might be in need of money…  

Speaking of Egan, the mystery behind the engraved alphabets T.M.B is revealed. Brade is currently residing in Egan’s Inn. They might have a connection and they are hiding it from the police.  

Saladine, the man who lost his tooth, is not who he says he is. He was found crouching below the window when Chan and John were talking to Kaohla. It is pretty clear Saladine was eavesdropping. 

The mystery behind the theft and the engravings is finally revealed. But the box was found empty. Something’s not right here…  

I am liking the way this story’s proceeding. I hope the ending is impressive too. 



Good point that we only have the word of Jennison (Barbara’s fiance) that Dan was afraid of Egan. But why did Dan give Egan a cheque, and why has Egan now torn that up? 

Saladine is fishy – can he really be searching in the sea for his lost false teeth? 

I still don’t feel like I know much about Chan, mainly as the story is from JQ’s perspective – having got another 2 books in my omnibus edition I’ll be interested to see how he develops. At the moment I’m just getting stereotypical “inscrutable Chinese” although with a definite sense of humour. 

I don’t have a huge urge to find out what happens next but it is still a pleasant read. 



There’s no ‘mystery’ feel to the story. Sounds more like a regular TV soap.  

If Saladine is the killer, he must have dropped something when he ran away from Dan’s house and he’s searching for it on the beach.  

I agree we readers do not know much about Chan. Reminds me of the first Poirot book – mysterious affairs at styles. Poirot isn’t seen much in the story. Maybe we will get to see more of Chan in the other books.  

Yes, pretty curious as to why Egan tore the cheque. Unlike Hallet, I do not think Egan is the killer. All evidence points to him and someone must be trying to set him up.  

I forgot to mention this before: Quincy’s confusion when it comes to affairs of the heart. He has feelings for Barbara; is drawn towards Cary; he struggles to write his fiance Agatha letter (doesn’t want to let go of her). I wonder what he’s going to do… If Jennison turns out to be the killer, JQ might marry Barbara… haha! 

So far, it’s been a pleasant read. Even I am not eager to find out what happens but I am used to this pacing – Bellairs stories are a little similar when it comes to pacing. 



Or Egan is shielding someone – why won’t he talk otherwise? 

And yes, JQ is mightily torn between all three women – possibly one of Barbara or Cary did it and he will end with the other – I can’t see him going back to Boston anyway. 





Barbara and Jennison called off their engagement! Poor JQ blames himself for it. But it is interesting to see how JQ feels torn between Barbara, Cary and Agatha. He’s a little jealous when Cary goes dancing with the Lieutenant she met in SF.  

We finally the reason for Egan tearing away the check. Good ol‘ blackmail. An easy source of money.  

Captain Cope came out of nowhere! His revelation seemed a little fishy though. But it has surely helped Egan monetarily. 

So, it was the fiance!! He murdered Dan so that he could get hold of the inheritance! After so many red herrings, it finally comes back to murder for money/inheritance. If blackmail was the reason for murder, I would have liked this story better. 

JQ’s kidnapped was uncalled for. Somehow I did not like this particular scene of events. But the threatening letter and missed shot suggested JQ to be on the right path.  

I was hoping JQ would stay back on the island and help Charlie in the future. He was pretty good at sleuthing. I wonder if the other books in this series are similar – would we see an amateur sleuth helping Charlie? 



Well, his relationship with Agatha seems to be something he was in because it was what was expected but he doesn’t treat her very well, even though she clearly doesn’t care that much for him. 

Between us we solved it – you were suspicious of Jennison and I thought it could have been someone from the boat. Although really at the end I was waiting for it to be Amos, who hated his brother so much, but nothing ever really came of that relationship. 

The attempted kidnap of JQ did go a bit thrillerish and was very coincidental that the taxi driver had the watch. 

Tricking Jennison into attempting suicide as a proof of his guilt was good and something I’ve seen in a later Agatha Christie book. 

I don’t think it was a great mystery, but I did enjoy the atmosphere, and I will get round to reading the other two that I have at some point. 



14 thoughts on “Buddy Read: The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

  1. Charlie didn’t have too much of a role in this did he? I think from the second book, he begins to take more of a central role as a detective.

    1. It was the same with Hercule Poirot’s first, isn’t it? I remember being very disappointed on reading Mysterious Affairs at Styles.

      1. Yes–Have you read the Angela Marchmont books? This was the case in those too–first one she was entirely on the sidelines.

  2. I read this when we went to Hawaii because we ate at a restaurant named after this book…

    1. When I googled The House without a Key (before reading this book), it showed me a restaurant. 😉

  3. Great joint review guys! This is a series I feel like I ought to try but have never got around to. Though maybe I won’t start with this one?
    The idea of the deadly Waikiki Widow must have been some kind of thing i.e. based on a legend, historical figure or something based within Hawaiian literature/culture, as Juanita Sheridan in 1953 wrote The Waikiki Widow – the final story in her Lily Wu quartet.

    1. We could do a buddy read. 😉 Ah, is the Widow of Waikiki someone similar to Typhoid Mary? But instead of typhoid, this lady caused a lot of deaths?

      1. I’m sure LittleJohn would get jealous if we did a non-Bellairs buddy read!
        The Waikiki Widow is a good book but I don’t know how easy you would find it to track it down. Not sure it made it into e-book format.

  4. Haha, that was a good one.🙂
    I tried searching for Juanita’s books when I was doing your quiz. I couldn’t find any ebooks. However, I found another comic-ish mystery classics via the quiz. I am bad at remembering titles so don’t ask me.😉

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