Brookfield native releases new novel

Barbara Gregorich remembers driving from her home in Brookfield to the Warren library with her brother shortly after getting her driver’s license.

“We began walking around and saw the local author’s shelf,” she said. “There were these well-worn, old hardback books that looked like each had been read hundreds of times. I’d never heard of Earl Derr Biggers, but they looked interesting, so I got one and he got one.”

Warren native Biggers is best known for creating the Charlie Chan detective novels, starting with 1925’s “The House Without a Key.” That novel is the focus for this year’s One Book One Community, a collaboration among the different libraries in Trumbull County to encourage the public to read the same book and participate in discussions and programs built around it.

Gregorich, a 1961 Brookfield High School graduate, became an author herself, writing both fiction and nonfiction. Her latest work, “Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers,” focuses on the writer she discovered on that trip to the library nearly 60 years ago, and she will give a talk on Biggers at the main branch of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Gregorich already was a fan of mysteries and detective fiction when she discovered Charlie Chan — getting a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories at age 11 started her passion for the genre — but Biggers’ work increased her interest.

“What impressed me was the character of Charlie Chan,” she said. “He was such a good person — so wise, so kind, with a terrific sense of humor. The other things that stood out were the settings. I love settings, and Biggers was a master of setting.”

The author’s portrayal of the character is all the more impressive considering the attitudes toward the Chinese at that time.

“He had the boldness to create a non-Caucasian hero in an era of vile anti-Chinese prejudice,” Gregorich said. “He went against this prejudice and created a good Chinese character, one who had great authority.”

Gregorich, 74, has written two mysteries of her own, “Dirty Proof” and “Sound Proof,” featuring Chicago detective Frank Dragovic. Her first novel, “She’s on First,” was about a woman playing Major League Baseball, and she also wrote a nonfiction book on “Woman at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.”

The nonfiction book led to several magazine assignments. When she ran out of female baseball players to profile, she suggested doing a story on Biggers, who died in 1933 at age 48, for the Ohio history magazine Timeline in the late ’90s.

Researching her subject wasn’t easy.

“He was a very private person,” she said. “He destroyed his papers, his manuscripts after he finished a book. He asked his wife to destroy everything after his death, which she did.”

The one paper trail was the Bobbs-Merrill archives at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, which included Biggers’ correspondence with his publishing house. The idea to expand that research into a book started after the recession rocked the publishing industry in 2008, making it increasingly difficult for mid-level authors to get their work released. Gregorich started investigating the potential of self-publishing and decided Biggers would be a good subject

“Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers” uses the research from the Bobbs-Merrill archives to explore Biggers’ initial ambiguity about writing a detective series and other subjects. Gregorich also includes her own analysis of the six Chan novels.

Biggers had written five novels before his first Charlie Chan book was published, and Gregorich said her program Saturday will focus on how he made that transformation.

“One thing that fascinated me is how did he transfer from being a writer of popular romantic escapades to becoming a writer of serious, classical-age mysteries in which the main character was a detective who sought out clues. It was very unlike his earlier work. I’m examining what did he need to know as a mainstream novelist and did he need to know as a mystery novelist on top of that.”