Mystery of The Agony Column, Charlie Chan, and a free book

Earl Derr Biggers was known for his six  Charlie Chan mysteries and the movies made from them. But before he created the famous detective he wrote other mysteries. One of which “The Agony Column” is a mystery within a mystery. I bring this book up because it is worth examining for writers as well as readers. You may find the book a great read, or you can argue the novel is too cute, too clever for it’s own good. It is a public domain novel you can download to your reading app for nothing on Amazon. You can tap for the free book and judge for yourself.

It was written in 1916 and the story takes place in 1914 just before England enters World War I. Here is the set up. The title is derived from a column in a London newspaper. It is one where people can exchange messages with anonymity. An man is seated at a restaurant table when a lovely woman and her father enter, sit down and begin talking. The man, infatuated with the lovely young American learns she loves reading the Agony Column. So he places an ad that references where she had lunch. She answers saying she loves mystery and romance and if he can continue to keep her interested she will meet him.

We learn in his second letter that the man above his apartment has been murdered and over the course of his letters a great mystery with many twists and turns ensue as the young man is helping in the investigation, not something he expected to have happen and indeed he becomes a suspect as well, and for good reason. Is he innocent or will he confess in his last letter? Would it not be a great twist to have the narrator be the killer? In each letter he professes his admiration and love for her, but is unsure of his future because of the murder investigation. 

It is a clever structure to have the mystery told by the narrator through letters. Not something I have run across before. The mystery of what happened draws the reader in and because of the time 1914 with war about to break out in Europe it seems a likely spy is in the midst of the murder and one who may be with the British government. But  there is also good reason to believe someone else is the killer, including the letter writer.

But as with any great mystery there is a twist and that I can not share, but the twist is where the reader, and perhaps a writer might think it was a twist that should not have been made. I will understand if some don’t like the ending, I get it. But from a writers standpoint I see something else at work. The narrator is the writer, the woman is his audience, and Biggers is the author and we are his audience. Even in a wonderful mystery, Biggers is having fun, holding up a mirror to the construct and artifice of writing, poking and prodding his audience to the end when he says “Got Ya!”

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