What makes a good detective novel memorable? Engaging detectives? A mystifying plot which manages to pull the carpet from under your feet at the end of the novel? A vivid and unusual setting? Well Sheridan’s The Mamo Murders (1952) has all three in her third Lily Wu and Janice Cameron novel. Like the second novel, The Kahuna Killer (1951), this novel is set in Hawaii; Honolulu and Maui to be specific. Both Lily, who is Chinese and Janice, who is a Caucasian American, are good at representing the diverse nationalities of Hawaii, which was becoming increasingly multi-cultural after WW2. Lily and Janice were both born in Hawaii, with the latter having learnt to speak Hawaiian from her father who was an expert and preserver of Hawaiian history and traditions. But they met in the first novel The Chinese Chop (1949) in New York. Janice is the series’ Watson and she narrates the novels and like Doyle’s Watson, Janice can be at times rather in awe of Lily who is depicted, especially at the beginning as more mysterious, intellectual and attractive than herself. Though that doesn’t stop Janice from getting annoyed by Lily or being aware of Lily’s psychological ploys. Similar to the previous novels we are made aware early on that appearances are deceptive in regards to Lily, but I think the same could be said for other characters in the novel as well:
‘As I looked at her I found it difficult to believe that I had once seen this languid little creature club a man unconscious.’
And the tale that follows is equally punctuated with violence, which is foreshadowed in the sweltering heat which is seen as a premonition for disaster. Lily and Janice’s peaceful day is interrupted by their journalist friend, Stephanie aka Steve who brings the unsettling news that a mutual acquaintance, Don Farham, a ranch owner in Maui has not turned up to meet either some guests of his or his wife of 2 months. What makes her anxiety seem more plausible is that as well as it being out of character, that the people at his ranch hung up the phone on Steve when she called, a terrified ranch worker calls saying something bad is going to happen soon if someone doesn’t stop it. Too hysterical to say anything else on the phone, Janice is sent to investigate and conveniently arrives at Maui on the same plane as Leslie Farham, Don’s wife.
The tension cranks up a notch as after struggling to get a taxi driver to take both Janice and Leslie to the ranch through a storm (a storm which for native Hawaiians symbolises the death of the local chief), they both arrive at the ranch to find Eoloe, the terrified voice on the phone injured from being trampled by a horse. Before leaving to get help, his last words are ‘the coffin is ready’. But help seems to arrive too late and he dies. Was his death an accident or was it deliberate? Leslie and Janice receive a frosty reception from Howard Farham, Don’s cousin and his wife and their friend Denis Desmond who bluntly tell Leslie that Don has been missing for four days having gone on a fishing trip and they are assuming he is dead. It seems they are keen to take advantage of Leslie’s weak position and assert their rights to the ranch, as the ranch goes to Howard on Don’s death, if he has no children. Even worse it seems Howard has “plans” for the ranch, which portend nothing but ill for the existing workers and local community.
But not everyone is so pessimistic about Don, as his foreman Karl King believes he is still alive, going on frequent search parties. Moreover, with Janice and Lily (who flies in later) by her side Leslie is able to put up a fight whilst with the other two trying to solve the mystery of Don’s disappearance. This is no easy task as everyone is reluctant to help them and are acting unsurprisingly very suspiciously. Who is Denis Desmond and what hold does he have over Mele that she would sell her land to him? Moreover, what does Mele know which is so damning that she considers herself a traitor? And what did Eoloe’s last words mean?
As layers of the mystery surrounding the ranch are unravelled, the narrative is kept lively and fast with dramatic incidences. Will anyone be able to reveal that they know something without being killed before they can say it? With further deaths this does seem unlikely and even our intrepid trio are not safe, as attempts are made to stop their progress, permanently. Only by going on a risky and life threating journey into the depths of Auohe, meaning the hidden place will this mystery be solved. But will Leslie, Janice and Lily all come through it unscathed in their final confrontation with the truth? This is a mystery where native Hawaiian traditions and beliefs clash with Western capitalist ideologies and the solution to the murders and the surrounding circumstances gives an interesting glimpse into another culture.
You can tell that Sheridan knew Hawaii well and she did in fact move there when she began her writing career. Her love of Hawaii shines through Janice’s descriptions of the different places. Janice in a way is an ideal narrator for the stories as she is a character who is in the middle of a very wide spectrum of inhabitants. On the one hand she enjoys the comforts of a Western lifestyle, yet on the other hand she has learnt through her father how to speak Hawaiian and is aware of their many customs and beliefs, some of which she more easily identifies with than the Western American ones her ethnicity connects her to. You can feel as though she finds a Hawaiian lifestyle or culture much more liberating or freeing:
‘The emotion with which I spoke of my father was something they expected and understood, since Hawaiian mores approve of pride in one’s progenitors. It was a relief to discard Caucasian false modesty.’
As to Lily and Janice, they are interesting and engaging amateur sleuths, who progress beyond the parallel of Holmes and Watson. Their dynamic is intriguing in that it is very progressive for the times, with Janice’s background enabling her to move beyond seeing Lily in crude stereotypes, although she does have a tendency to objectify her (an idea I discuss more thoroughly in my article on Lily Wu in CADs Issue 71). Moments where racism appears is either through unlikeable characters such as Edith Farham who refers to Lily as a ‘gook’ or is used in a very mild form for humorous purposes and Lily’s responses to it show that that is its intentions. For example, when discussing with Steve how Chinese customs require Lily to look after Janice after having saved her life once, Steve replies with a grin:
‘Damned funny people, these Chinese.’
‘Yes, aren’t they?’ Lily agreed amicably.
It is clear that no offence is meant and is humour shared between friends who know the boundaries.
Rating: 4.5/5 (I suppose I am biased as this is a series which I love. But Lily and Janice make a great team and the mysteries they have to unravel are not formulaic and due to their locale are given an extra vibrancy. Sheridan’s knowledge and love of Hawaii means that it isn’t simply used as a novelty and the place, its customs and culture are intrinsically linked to the plot and added meaning to it.)
Unsurprisingly the title to this novel is Hawaiian based and shows Sheridan’s knowledge of the culture. Mamo refers to a bird who was black but had a few golden feathers. This is a bird which is now extinct (having been last officially spotted in 1907) and their feathers were used to make capes for ali’i or Hawaiian royalty. Tens of thousands of birds could be required to complete such a cape and as the title hints at, they are involved to a degree in the story.