The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

the house without a key

Title: The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan #1)

Author: Earl Derr Biggers

First published in 1925

Genre: Mystery Classics (American), Golden Age Mystery

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dan Winterslip, the black sheep of an aristocratic Boston family is found murdered on the lanai. Two weeks before his death, Dan has asked his nephew John Quincy Winterslip to retrieve a chest from Dan’s San Fransisco house. But somebody got there first. John Quincy reaches Hawaii with Dan’s daughter Barbara and are received at the docks by his aunt Minerva and uncle Amos(Dan’s brother). John and Barbara learn of Dan’s murder.

Inspector Charlie Chan and Chief Hallet arrive at the scene of crime. Minerva tells him about the intruder she saw when she came home from the party. It was dark and all she could see was his luminous watch with number 2 glowing dull. A cigarette bud, luminous watch, a brooch and the disappearance of the mysterious chest are the clues leading to the killer.

I have read a few American Mystery Classics so far (3 to be exact). John and I decided to buddy read this book. You can read our discussion here.


The Hawaii setting – scenic landscapes and hybrid ethnic communities – gives the readers a sneak peek of life in Hawaii in the early 1900s. I wouldn’t call this one of the best mysteries but I would surely recommend you to read it. Elements of drama and romance in a murder mystery is what makes The House Without a Key an entertaining read.

Charlie Chan is the main sleuth in this series but he takes a backseat in this story. John Quincy turns out to be a promising amateur sleuth, after all it is he who identifies the killer. Charlie Chan gets the least dramatic entrance ever! This is how we are introduced to Charlie’s presence at the crime scene :

As they went out, the third man stepped farther into the room, and Miss Minerva gave a little gasp of astonishment as she looked at him. In those warm islands thin men were a rule, but here was a striking exception. He was very fat indeed, yet he walked with the light dainty step of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby’s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting. As he passed Miss Minerva he bowed with a courtesy encountered all too rarely in a work-a-day world, then moved on after Hallet.

Speaking of romance, John Quincy is torn between his feelings for not one or two, but three women. His cousin Barbara is engaged to a lawyer but John cannot seem to keep his eyes off her. They end up sharing a kiss!! Then there is Cary, Jim Egan’s daughter. John meets Cary in the mainland and then again in Hawaii. And we have the woman who’s engaged to John – Agatha. Now Aggie and John aren’t into each other and their engagement seems more like a contract than a love affair. As the story ends, John finds love again. Who is it? Well… 😉

John Quincy’s curiosity almost gets him kidnapped. JQ and Charlie share an amicable relationship. Charlie is cool-as-a-cucumber while Hallet is short-tempered and arrogant. Clues point out to a certain somebody but Hallet is adamant the man is innocent. This angers John and thinks Hallet is either incompetent or corrupt. Hallet’s ‘secrets’ are out at the end so all’s well that ends well, eh?

Overall, this was an enjoyable read. A little low on the mystery side. Read this book for the setting and the drama.

Featured Image Credits: Goodreads

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