The name Hugh Wiley isn't very well remembered today, even among fans of mystery stories, which was the field in which he made his greatest impact in the 1930s. But the films based on his most popular stories, about Chinese sleuth James Lee Wong, provided a vehicle for some of Boris Karloff's most interesting non-horror character performances of the late '30s and early '40s. The son of Eliphalet Wiley and the former Rose McDonald, Hugh Wiley was born in Zanesville, OH, and became an engineer during the first decade of the 20th century. As a member of the army, he served in France as the captain of B Company, 18th Engineers during the First World War. It was after his return to civilian life in 1918 that Wiley began writing professionally, beginning with an adventure tale entitled "Four Leaved Wildcat", which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on March 8, 1919. He followed this with a series of stories, "Mister Lady Luck", "Hop", "Junk", and "Solitaire" among them, through the year 1920, and these were followed by his first books, The Wildcat in 1920 and The Prowler in 1921. The Wildcat told the story of a black American drafted and sent overseas during World War I; several of Wiley's other early books, including The Prowler and Fo' Meals a Day (1927), were works depicting black life in comic and exaggerated manner, somewhat akin to minstrel show entertainment though perhaps a bit more subtle. His other works, including Here's Luck (1928) and Spoils of War, dealt with service during World War I in comedic and serious fashion, respectively. As early as 1921, the movie industry had expressed an interest in Wiley's work, when "Hop" was adapted into Bits of Life; in 1922 he wrote the titles for the feature Fools First, and in 1926 The Spoils of War was made into the movie Behind the Front.
It wasn't until 1934, however, that Wiley created the character that would give him his most lasting impact on Hollywood. That year, he published a story entitled "Medium Well Done" in Colliers magazine, in which he introduced the character of James Lee Wong, an educated, articulate, gentlemanly Chinese-American sleuth whose expertise at solving crimes carries him into contact with the most brutal of murders, and a world of opium dens and other presumed attributes of the Chinatown underworld. In the stories, James Lee Wong is depicted as an agent of the United States Treasury Department, who takes orders directly from his bureau chief in Washington and has other agents under his command. He is six feet tall and a Yale graduate with a special knowledge of the physical sciences (especially chemistry), and resides in San Francisco's Chinatown. The James Lee Wong stories, later collected in a book entitled Murder by the Dozen, were very popular, and in 1938 Monogram Pictures became interested in the character's potential on film. At the time, 20th Century Fox was still doing well with its Charlie Chan films and was also enjoying great success with its series of Mr. Moto films, starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective created by John P. Marquand. Monogram licensed the film rights to the character and scored a huge coup when it managed to sign Boris Karloff to play the title character. Karloff had just enjoyed a triumph at Universal with Son of Frankenstein, playing the Frankenstein monster for the last time, but the studio had not yet made the decision to go back into the production of horror movies, and had no roles forthcoming. He signed on to play James Lee Wong in five of the movies, which were interspersed between his bigger films for the major studios during 1939 and 1940. The Mr. Wong films were all neatly constructed low-budget productions that stripped the most controversial elements from Wiley's original works -- Karloff played the character with dignity and restraint, engaging in no racial exaggerations in his portrayal, and, as always, was a delight to watch. He was supported by Grant Withers as Captain Street of the police department, and Marjorie Reynolds as a pushy reporter, and although the films were threadbare by the standards of any of the major studios, they were successful and popular, sufficiently so that when Karloff left the series in 1940, Monogram tried to continue it by casting Keye Luke, the actor who had formerly played Charlie Chan's number one son in the Fox films, to portray a younger Mr. Wong, referred to as Jimmy Wong, in Phantom of Chinatown (1941). Although lacking the mystique of Karloff's films in the series, the latter movie is fascinating as a document of what popular perceptions of China and the Chinese people -- and San Francisco's Chinatown -- were, on the eve of America's entry into World War II. The series was dropped after 1941. Ironically, Fox dropped the Chan movies around the same time and Sidney Toler, who had taken over the role of Charlie Chan following the death of Warner Oland, bought out the film rights to the character; he, in turn, sold them to Monogram, which recycled some of the Mr. Wong scripts into its Chan film series. No one ever brought James Lee Wong to the screen in any guise again, however, as such books, characters, and portrayals went out of date and out of social acceptability in the ensuing decades.
Hugh Wiley continued to write short stories into the 1940s, and also returned to his original profession as an engineer, writing on the subject. Additionally, he wrote on the subject of early Chinese jade and bronze, an interest that, undoubtedly, intersected with his original impetus in creating James Lee Wong. He died of influenza at the very end of 1968.