Red Chair Reads: Seven Keys to Baldpate

When the Teenager was six or so, we took her on a hike on one of the trails near Lily Lake.  It was a level ramble, with just one short but somewhat steep climb at the end, and then a short walk to the Baldpate Inn.  We had never been to this mountain lodge before, and have not been back: the brunch buffet was much praised in the area, but I was underwhelmed (I hate having to look for the fruit in fruit pies), and though I love a historic hotel, I am past the age of being willing to share bathroom facilities with strangers.  Chief among the Baldpate Inn’s claims to fame is its 20,000 key collection, but back then I did not know the history of the inn or the genesis of the key collection.  Now that I know, I wonder that the original owners thought it an honour to name their hotel after the book.

One of the joys of having a Kindle is being able to download free and out-of-print books — lots and lots of them.  Unfortunately, there is a reason why most of them are obscure, but I keep trolling through ManyBooks, in the hopes of finding some hidden treasures.  Seven Keys to Baldpate, by Earl Derr Biggers, would not be one of them.  I should have known better — I’ve not had much luck with books by writers with three names …  The book is meant to be a madcap farce, but it is not a particularly engaging one, with strange interludes of philosophical musings that would not be so objectionable if they were not completely trite, uttered by people who really ought to be charming but instead are merely annoying.  The novel is a product of its time (1913); the Progressive Era was in full swing, and it was a time of social and political instability.  Biggers would seem to have been a cynical — and perhaps uneasy — observer of contemporary reform movements, for beneath all the prattle and slang, the book reflects an undercurrent of fear and uncertainty.   The heroine (if she could be viewed as such, for the book is completely male-dominated) is meant to be the embodiment of the New Woman; we learn at the end that she is a reporter who volunteered to go on the dangerous mission of exposing the handover of bribe money.  But, when first seen, the New Woman was crying her eyes out, and when last seen was in the arms of her husband-to-be — and in between, spent her time expecting the hero to do her work for her.  And then there is the Corrupt Boss, a man who knew what he was and presented himself exactly as what he was, in sharp contrast to everyone else around him who all had secrets and hidden selves; corrupt he may be, but he was strong and got things done, and in the end, Biggers allowed him to walk free, undefeated, the man of resource and action.

As a work of fiction, Seven Keys to Baldpate is a failure; I can’t help but wonder if it is in print only because of The Baldpate Inn, which sells the book and runs mystery and book club weekends centered around the work: “our namesake book,” they proudly proclaim.  But, the book is interesting as a historical text of the Progressive Era — how much more interesting and relevant our seminar discussions could have been if it had been offered as an adjunct to the required readings!

Opie, the Red Chair Book Critic
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