As Captain of Detectives of the Honolulu Police Department during the early 1900s, John Richard Kellet (1883-1931) was for several years the supervisor of detective Chang Apana (1871-1933) — the man who was the inspiration for American novelist and playwright Earl Derr Biggers’ famous fictional detective character, Charlie Chan.
Detective Kellett’s grandfather, Englishman John Kellett (1792-1869), arrived on Kauai as a sailor in 1836, and for nearly 40 years, resided in a house named Lanihuli atop the Hanalei River Ridge near the mouth of the Hanalei River.
During those years, grandfather Kellett served as the pilot of the Port of Hanalei and the health officer, customs collector and postmaster for Hanalei, while he and his wife, Kaui Kawekau, supplemented their income by provisioning ships and renting rooms in one wing of Lanihuli.
In 1909, when John Kellett joined the Honolulu Police Department as a special detective, Chang Apana’s exploits as an 11-year veteran of the HPD as a patrol officer had already brought him notoriety.
Born in Waipio, Oahu, Chang Apana was highly successful in solving many criminal cases due to his mastery of disguises as an undercover officer, his wide-ranging network of informants, his courage, shrewdness and scrupulous attention to detail, and his fluency in Hawaiian, Chinese and of course, English.
Kellett and Apana worked as equals in the HPD detective bureau from 1916, the year Apana transferred to the detective bureau, until 1923, when Kellett was appointed captain of detectives and became Apana’s boss.
Earl Derr Biggers first learned of Chang Apana’s daring police work while reading Honolulu newspapers in a New York library in 1924.
He thereafter wrote six mystery novels featuring his fictional detective Charlie Chan, whose detective work was based on the real-life adventures of Chang Apana.
Several popular Charlie Chan films — original screenplays founded on the character Biggers created — were produced in Hollywood between 1932 and 1949.