Hawaiian Noir

Murder Calls

The first time I heard the term, “Hawaiian noir,” was in reference to a 1954 movie, Hell’s Half Acre. Filmed in Black and White, the movie tells the story of a woman whose husband was listed as MIA at Pearl Harbor. She goes to Honolulu to find him. In reality, he was an ex-racketeer who changed his name to hide his criminal activities. He is being blackmailed by his former criminal partners, who come gunning for him and his wife. The man’s girlfriend kills one of the ex-partners, for which he takes the blame. The story is set mostly in and around the dark alleys of Honolulu’s Chinatown. 

As far as I can tell, that was the first time the term “Hawaiian noir” was used. However, there have been murder mysteries set in Hawai‘i prior to this movie, most notably the Charlie Chan stories. Charlie Chan is the creation of Earl Derr Biggers who visited Honolulu in 1919 and got the idea for the character. He published the first novel, The House Without a Key in 1925. Five more books followed, as did movies, more than thirty in all. 

Biggers conceived of Chan as an affable Chinese alternative to the “yellow peril” characters such as Fu Manchu who were popular at the time. Chan is known for his intelligence, his family devotion, and the aphorisms he frequently spouts. Are the Chan stories “noir?” They tend to have happy endings with Chan’s theories of the crime being vindicated. However, they are not cozy mysteries either. Chan has to deal with hardened criminals and with violence, often in places that most people would view as dangerous and threatening. Chan is not an amateur sleuth, but a police detective with a certain amount of cynicism about human nature. I think the Charlie Chan stories, while not “noir,” represent an important stop on the hardboiled mystery road.

Bad alibi like dead fish—cannot stand test of time. Charlie Chan in Panama (1940)

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