It was never my intention to get up on a soapbox and make any authoritative pronouncements on the subject of race. In my original draft of “A Gentleman’s Murder,” my detective was a British-to-his-bones colonial chap by the name of Eric Peterkin — white, of course, not because the story demanded it, but because it didn’t occur to me until the third draft or so to do otherwise. All I wanted was to deliver a satisfying mystery story, a thumping good read inspired by the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. The fact that my protagonist defied expectations was only incidental.
I was a boy when I fell in love with the genre. In those days, before the Internet, I remember trading Agatha Christie novels with classmates and haunting the local lending libraries. But Golden Age detective fiction is a finite resource. It was only a matter of time before I ran out of stories by the likes of Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G.K. Chesterton — and I began to dream of writing my own mysteries.
I chose 1920s England for my backdrop. I’d fallen as much in love with that setting as I had with the mystery puzzle as a form. It was familiar, with modern conveniences like electric lights and automobiles, but the habits and customs still drew on older Victorian models. It was a world racing into the future to escape the past, layering on the glamour to cover up the scars of the Great War.
I built the puzzle around a soldiers-only gentlemen’s club, which provided the closed environment and limited suspects that the old Golden Age mysteries thrived on. It also gave me the opportunity to delve into wartime trauma: Shell shock, or what we call PTSD today, was a known but poorly understood aspect of life after World War I. Most Golden Age writers touched on it only briefly, if at all, but I had a century’s worth of distance and medical advancement on my side.
I had my puzzle, and I’d set my stage. All that remained was my detective. I wanted someone who was sympathetic and human, rather than a superhero whose preternatural prowess the reader could only admire from afar. Like any writer, I looked within, which is how Eric Peterkin went from being a white European to being a Eurasian born to a British father and a Chinese mother — or, to use a period slur, a “half-caste.”
I had my doubts when I made that decision. Ethnically speaking, I’m all Chinese, and I grew up in Singapore, where 75 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese. But the effects of 160 years of British rule continue to be felt in Singapore. Growing up in an English-speaking family, I felt a certain Britishness that went beyond the dog-eared Christie at the bottom of my school bag. There was social pressure to remember my Chinese identity — to never forget who I was or where I’d come from. And I knew who and where that was. I just wasn’t sure I felt it.
I soon came to realize that Eric’s half-and-half heritage said more about me than any direct representation of myself could. He’s not so much me as he is my cultural experience, this combination of Asian blood and European culture. If he is disconnected from his Chinese heritage, perhaps that is a reflection of that great fear of becoming too westernized, of getting lost.
What had begun as an homage to the period became an exploration of social experience. Issues of race showed up in my reading less than war trauma did, which meant more research to uncover the depths of the Chinese expatriate experience. I learned of the race riots of 1919, and I discovered that the pulp-fiction cliche of the Limehouse opium den persisted only because such shadowy hideaways were expected of the Chinese in London. In fact, the last of the opium dens had been wiped out of the community before the 20th century. Fictional Chinese criminal masterminds such as Fu Manchu were manifestations of the “yellow peril,” a genuine fear of the encroaching “threat” of my people.
There were reactions against this sort of thing, of course. Ronald Knox declared that no “Chinaman” should figure in a proper detective story, a rule that I used to think was a humorous jab at Fu Manchu. Now I understand that it was a protest against racist stereotyping. Charlie Chan was created in 1925 as a heroic antithesis to Fu Manchu, but he was written by a white man and was made famous in the cinema by white actors in yellowface. English mystery writers of Chinese heritage did exist: Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar, “the Saint,” was half-Chinese. But the Saint was unmistakably white.
The writers I admired wrote what they knew, and they wrote it well. But what they knew, for the most part, was the white experience. It was not my experience, and it was not the experience of nonwhite people at the time. “A Gentleman’s Murder” is still not primarily a story about race. If anything, it’s a story about war trauma. Eric’s heritage is simply a gesture to indicate that people like him were part of the social fabric. It’s a matter of representation — a nonwhite perspective added to the general understanding of the period, my own contribution to the genre I love.
Christopher Huang is the author of the recent novel “A Gentleman’s Murder,” which has been optioned for a television series.