Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"The Melodramatic Development of the Latter Pages Stretches the Rubber Band of Suspense to Its Limit. It Might Snap."

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE.
By Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933).
Bobbs-Merrill.
1913. 408 pages.
(Samuel French's theatrical edition: 1914, 105 pages. Subtitled: "A Melodramatic Farce in A Prologue, Two Acts, and An Epilogue.")
Play version by George M. Cohan (1878-1942) premiered in Hartford, Conn., September 15, 1913.
Filmed many times: 1917 (IMDb), 1925 (IMDb), 1929 (IMDb), 1935 (IMDb), 1946 (IMDb), 1947 (IMDb), and 1983 (IMDb).
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. Play edition is HERE.
Earl Derr Biggers is famous for his Charlie Chan mysteries; Seven Keys to Baldpate was his first novel, but the wise and unpredictable Chinese-American detective is conspicuous by his absence.
A famous author comes to a summer mountain resort in the dead of winter, determined to find peace and quiet to write his next book. But before his first night is out, a steady stream of unexpected visitors begins to fill the hotel ... men and women with stories of love, loss, and flight ... none of them telling the truth. Before the week is out, there will be gunfire, bribery, fights in the snow, and hidden truths unmasked. "Seven Keys to Baldpate" is a mystery that will leave you guessing to the end. Earl Derr Biggers penned "Seven Keys to Baldpate" long before he created his most famous character, Chinese detective Charlie Chan, yet in its day it was a popular best-seller and became the source for no less than seven films. — Wildside Press description
Biggers's freshman effort has always enjoyed mixed reviews:
[Full review] Compounded of the prescribed ingredients to make a best-seller, Seven Keys to Baldpate would seem destined to appeal to the large public that enjoys running as it reads. The author not only takes up confidently the tried properties of the juggling story-teller, which may be grouped under the two heads of laughter and suspense, but he has the humorous temerity to pose himself vicariously as the hero.
Billy Magee is a popular novelist who has become bored of writing and drawing large royalties from this very kind of book. Toward the Christmas season he decides to seclude himself far from Broadway in a mountain summer hotel, which is closed and unoccupied.
His intention is to settle in solitude and compose a really serious novel. Through a friend, whose father owns the hotel, he receives the first key to Baldpate. Almost immediately his isolation is broken by a second person, who also has received a key and who also wishes to withdraw from the world's madding crowd.
In rapid succession other people with keys arrive at Baldpate mysteriously. Among them is a college professor, who confesses that the newspapers have driven him to cover, because he declared that one peroxide blonde was worth twenty suffragettes.
Another is an adorable young lady, accompanied by a vulgar woman whom she addresses as "Mamma." Also there are a political boss and his henchman.
Additional strange persons prowl about the hotel until six of the seven keys are accounted for. To say that there is a package containing two hundred thousand dollars in the hotel safe, and that each of the seven persons wants it, or has it and loses it, through a series of galloping chapters, is to go far enough in despoiling the author's right to tell his own story.
If his book had remained farce or comedy from restless start to finish perhaps he would have revealed more individuality even in a work frankly designed for popular amusement. The melodramatic development of the latter pages stretches the rubber band of suspense to its limit. It might snap. Then, the indisputable political moral of the culminating climax shows how far the author has strayed from the path on which he first started. Yet he leads beguilingly; and this is the day of uplift in all things, including moving pictures. — "New Books by New Writers," THE BOOKMAN (June 1913)
[Full review] Novelist William Magee comes to spend a winter at an isolated summer resort in order to write his opus in solitude. Instead, he finds the supposedly deserted hostelry peopled with a colorful cast of characters, all intent on a mysterious McGuffin locked in the hotel safe. A beautiful and elusive woman draws him into the chase. The novel starts off well, wittily told and intriguing, but bogs down at the end. The mystery's ultimate solution seems prosaic and its long, narrative explanation dull. — Leah A. Zeldes, MANYBOOKS (2010)
George M. Cohan in 1910.
Resources:
- The GAD Wiki page for Biggers is HERE.
- A lengthy article about the play [Warning: SPOILERS] is HERE.
- A collection of generally favorable reviews is HERE.

Category: Mystery fiction (farce division)

2 comments:

  1. I read this about a year ago; it was rather silly, but still a lot of fun. I'll have to see if I can find any of the movie versions -- it would probably make a terrific movie in the right hands.

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    Replies
    1. Bob - Farce is hard to do well. I agree that it could be turned into a great movie; the trick is finding "the right hands." - Mike

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