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50 Candles starts in a courthouse in Honolulu, moves to China, then to fog-shrouded San Francisco. Many of the elements used in the Charlie Chan series are present: Chinese characters (both sinister and sympathetic), the Honolulu legal system, a shrewd detective (in this case, the lawyer Mark Drew rather than a policemen), and a baffling murder complete with red herrings and plenty of suspects. Though Fifty Candles is a murder mystery, it is also a romance, with the romantic elements at times in the forefront. Mostly, though, it is a book that will delight Biggers’ many fans as they trace the origins of Charlie Chan.
89 pages, with a reading time of ~1.5 hours (22,273 words), and first published in 1926. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2021.
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From the records of the district court at Honolulu for the year 1898 you may, if you have patience, unearth the dim beginnings of this story of the fifty candles. It is a story that stretches over twenty years, all the way from that bare Honolulu court room to a night of fog and violence in San Francisco. Many months after the night of the tule–fog I happened into the Hawaiian capital, and took down from a library shelf a big legal–looking book, bound in bright yellow leather the color of a Filipino house–boy’s shoes on his Saturday night in town. I found what I was looking for under the heading: “In the Matter of Chang See.”
The Chinese, we are told, are masters of indirection, of saying one thing and meaning another, of arriving at their goal by way of a devious, irrelevant maze. Our legal system must have been invented and perfected by Chinamen—but is this lese–majesty or contempt of court or something? Beyond question the decision of the learned court in the matter of Chang See, as set down in the big yellow book, is obscured and befuddled by a mass of unspeakably dreary words. See 21 Cyc., 317 Church Habeas Corpus, 2d Ed., Sec. 169. By all means consult Kelley v. Johnson, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 622, 631–32. And many more of the same sort. Here and there, however, you will happen on phrases that mean something to the layman; that indicate, behind the barrier of legal verbiage, the presence of a flesh–and–blood human fighting for his freedom—for his very life. Piece these phrases together and you may be able to reconstruct the scene in the court room that day in 1898, when a lean impassive Chinaman of thirty stood alone against the great American nation. In other words, Chang See v. U.S. I say he stood alone, though he was, of course, represented by counsel. "Harry Childs for the Petitioner," says the big yellow book. Poor Harry Childs—his mind was already beginning to go. It had been keen enough when he came to the islands, but the hot sun and the cool drinks—well, he was a little hazy that day in court. He died long ago—just shriveled up and died of an overdose of the Paradise of the Pacific—so it can hardly injure his professional standing to intimate that he was of little aid to his client in the matter of Chang See. Chang See was petitioning the United States for a writ of habeas corpus and his freedom from the custody of the inspector of immigration at the port of Honolulu. He had arrived at the port from China some two months previously, bringing with him a birth certificate recently obtained and forwarded to him by friends in Honolulu. This certificate asserted that Chang See had been born in Honolulu of Chinese parents—that he had first seen the light on a December day thirty years before in a house out near Queen Emma's yard, on the beach at Waikiki. When he was four years old his parents had taken him back with them to their native village of Sun Chin, in China. If the certificate spoke the truth, then Chang See must be regarded as an American citizen and freely admitted to Honolulu with no wearisome chatter about the Chinese Exclusion Act. But the inspector at the port had been made wary by long service. He admitted that the certificate was undoubtedly founded on fact. But, he contended, how was he to know that this tall, wise–looking Chinaman was the little boy Chang See who had once played about the beach at Waikiki? Thus challenged, the petitioner brought in witnesses to prove his identity. He brought twelve of them in all—shuffling old men, ancient dames with black silk trousers and tiny feet, younger sports prominent in the night life of Hotel Street. Some of them were reputed to have known him as a baby out near Queen Emma's yard; others had been the companions of the days of his youth in the village of Sun Chin. Chang See's witnesses had begun their testimony before the inspector confidently enough. Then under the inspector's stony stare they had weakened. They had become confused, contradictory. Even the man who had obtained the birth certificate gave as the name of Chang See's father an entirely new and unheard–of appellation. In a word, the petitioner's friends one and all deserted him. Something seemed to have happened to them. Something had happened to them. That something was the vivid remembrance of a little old lady with a thin face and cruel eyes, who was at the moment sitting in Peking, the virtual ruler of all China. Chang See had been lately active in fields that did not appeal to the dowager empress