It could be said that James Norman (1912-1983) had an action packed life to say the least, having been a journalist, member of the 1932 US Olympics Polo team, a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, a sculptor in Paris, an army combat correspondent in WW2 and even a Hollywood script writer in the 1950s, until the communist activities of his youth were unearthed and he was blacklisted. One wonders what sort of project such a man would do in his dotage, though I’d be surprised if anyone would have guessed he would have worked on a dog gourmet cook book. (N.B. Not a recipe book using dogs as a food, but a book of celebrities and their pet dogs, with some recipes for dogs (I’m assuming) interspersed.)
Murder, Chop Chop (1942) is the first of the trilogy of novels featuring Captain Gimiendo Hernandez Quinto, who runs a guerrilla training school for the Nationalist Chinese government. This story was also serialised in Adventure’s December 1941 and January 1942 Issues, renamed as Viva China! in a condensed format. The other two novels in the trilogy are An Inch of Time (1945) and The Nightwalkers (1947). Over the next few decades he would write 6 more novels for adults, though not for this series. He also wrote plays, including one for TV and radio. He also wrote seven works for children, as well writing tourist guides for Mexico and even a Handbook to the Christian Liturgy (1944).
This story is set in 1938 in China in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War and opens with a train going towards Lingtung, which introduces to us a number of the main characters such as John Tate, a once studier of Chinese Calligraphy, but due to the war has been required to take on translation work for the Chinese Press Bureau. Though it seems he has been given a slightly different task of watching one of the other train passengers, a task he has to do from the roof as there are no more seats inside – a situation which is far from comfortable for him what with the train crashing into a cow at one point (leading to him breaking his arm) and at another point being targeted by Japanese cannons. The passenger he has to watch is a journalist named Mildred Woodford, who is suspected of being a spy for the Japanese. However his task is also shared with others, such as a Eurasian woman named Mountain of Virtue who is to take Woodford to meet the commander of Lingtung, Quinto. Quinto is keen to keep Woodford away from Abe Harrow, an American who has light fingers and who seems to be working against the Chinese. Abe Harrow is very unpopular for this reason and for many others, with characters such as Clive Firth desiring him to be arrested and shot. It shouldn’t therefore be much of a surprise when not many pages later, Harrow is brought down from the mountain he climbed that morning dead. It seems he fell over a sheer cliff. Was this accidental or was he pushed?
Keen to minimise the damage Woodford could do with this event, many characters are used to stall and distract her. Meanwhile he and others begin to investigate Harrow’s death which brings up a number of suspicious circumstances when his and others rooms are searched. Searching two places in particular reveals evidence which suggests a much wider criminal conspiracy is going on. The suspect list is still quite wide though as it seems quite a few people were up on the mountain that morning, including an unknown person in a yellow trench coat. A second death and the disappearance of a pair of famous false teeth add further confusion and complexity to the investigation. Due to the setting of the mystery the plot is very action packed with characters fleeing apprehension, air raid attacks and even kidnaps, which is fine by Quinto who is a man who prefers action.
Quinto is a larger than life character, who fits his role well, though I don’t think I would like to meet him in real life. He has quite a mysterious past, with his family originating in Mexico. Quinto certainly thinks well of himself and he sees the deaths that happen as an affront to his own authority. For me the important character and the one I was most interested in reading about was Mountain of Virtue. At this point in detective fiction Chinese women hadn’t featured as major characters, certainly not ones who did any sleuthing. Murder Chop Chop from this aspect is therefore quite important, being I think the first appearance of a Chinese female sleuth. Though to be fair she is more of an assistant in this book. Readers would have to wait another year until the work of Juanita Sheridan to have a Chinese woman as the primary detective. Sheridan in 1943 wrote a detective novel featuring Chinese Angie Tudor called What Dark Secret, but it was in 1949 that Sheridan’s most famous sleuth, Lily Wu came into print for the first time in The Chinese Chop.
Mountain of Virtue is in some ways a very positive depiction of a woman, as she is independent, capable and uncovers a lot of important information for the investigation. However, looking back over the book it does feel a bit like she is also a male fantasy figure, with her looks and their effects on others being focused on a lot. Unlike Lily Wu who refrains from seduction techniques to find out information, Mountain of Virtue resorts to this a lot. One top tip for all ladies reading this from the book is that if you pose like Chinese beauty Princess Hsishih you’ll be irresistible to the opposite sex. Hsishih’s iconic look is showing that she has a toothache with attractive brows knitted together in suffering. If anyone tries this out let do let us know if it works… So she has ridiculously good looks, she is a good fighter and also has a strong element of mystery about her (with the chief of the North Army Secret Police, referring to her as ‘a blind spot in [his] files,’) – all components which make turn her into a male fantasy in the book. However, considering Quinto’s attitudes towards other women, you begin to admire Mountain Of Virtue for the way she outsmarts him and others. The only times Quinto is disconcerted is when his thoughts are distracted by her.
Nevertheless looking at the characters overall in the book I think Norman depicts an interesting and varied collection of people living in or around the guerrilla training school. There are many non-Chinese people living there, having come to China for a plethora of reasons. I don’t know if Norman ever went to China but he seems to portray its people and culture in a faithful and vivid way, not resorting to stereotypes. A number of social differences crop up in the book which interested me, such as when the Chinese characters are quite shocked when Mountain of Virtue says she cleaned a man’s shoes. It is interesting to see how Chinese and non-Chinese people interact in the book. However, any differences in interaction are not down to race, but due to individual animosities or affections. One moment in particular describes Lieutenant Chi’s love of all things American, having stayed there for a time:
‘He introduced Y. M. C. A. exercises in the Fourth Route Army. So great was his admiration for Occidental habits that he scrubbed his teeth ruthlessly four times a day, wore golf togs when not in uniform and sported fancy mechanical pencils for which he had no lead. The tables in his room sagged under the weight of numerous alarm clocks, for he admired the Western mania of exactitude…’
Aside from the amusing images this passage conjurors up, it is also interesting to see how Norman typifies Western culture from a non-Western point of view.
From the blurb and the general feel of the book I was expecting an adventure/thriller and in some ways this is definitely delivered. Yet Norman also seeks to provide a detective puzzle plot. For instance there are a number of intriguing clues in the case such as the three watches Harrow wore, which all stopped at the same time, showing different times. Quinto may say that:
‘I hate this business of questioning people in the manner of an English detective. We’ve had enough of that for a few days. Now that we have action, we’ll come quickly to a solution of our problems.’
Yet he does do a fair bit of detective work, discussing out loud with colleagues important questions which need to be answered to solve the case and Tate in some respects is a Watson like figure at points. Quinto’s solution which he reveals unusually through a play is also based on logical deductions. Having said that I don’t think the reader is likely to solve the case fully, as although based on evidence and deductions, there is so much action in the book that you don’t really have a moment to think. The solution itself is very good and is also very unexpected, overturning certain detective fiction tropes. I think Norman gets away with this blending of thriller and puzzle-clue forms, though there could have been a bit less action, so the reader could concentrate on the case more easily and sometimes the action did feel like it was dragging the story out a bit. However, it was an unusual and engaging read on the whole and if you like a perplexing mystery and want to read something different, you should check this one out. Due to the Rue Morgue Press who reprinted this book a while back there are a few reasonably priced copies out there.