Great Series Finale in Juanita Sheridan’s The Waikiki Widow (1953)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Any other animal

the-waikiki-widow

Sheridan’s work and her serial amateur detective Lily Wu are definitely firm reading favourites, which gives today’s review a sense of satisfaction, but also a feeling of poignancy, as this is the final Lily Wu mystery. The action mostly takes place in Hawaii and as with the other three novels, there is a strong sense of time and place. In particular in this novel there is a backdrop of Communist civil war in China, which leads to a large number of refugees entering British Hong Kong and then into places such America. Though in some ways this is more than a backdrop as these events propel the story’s case into being, making it also a very personal case for Lily, which brings the series full circle to her first case, The Chinese Chop (1949).

As usual Janice Cameron, Lily’s foster sister, narrates the story and we are soon plunged into a mystery. Whilst Janice is having a relaxing time with friends, her mind frequently turns to Lily, who has inexplicably disappeared for a few days. Many scenarios play out in Janice’s head but none of them prepare her for the truth when Lily returns as mysteriously as she left, though on her return she is not alone. She has brought with her a family friend, Madame Li and a man named Yao. Madame Li is far from well and over the opening chapters it is revealed that she was badly tortured in China, an experience also shared by her husband, but who unfortunately did not survive it. Aside from getting Madame Li to safety, Lily is also determined to recover her fortune, a large number of pearls, which were behind their torture in the first place. With all of this drama going on Janice is certainly perplexed when Lily is keen to go to a party being hosted by the infamous socialite, Lady Blanche Carleton, nicknamed the Waikiki Widow. Could it do with the fact that Blanche is the widow of Sir Simon Carleton, former British Legation in Shanghai?

As Lily and Janice get further acquainted with the murky and far from innocent Waikiki crowd it soon seems like there is more going on than hedonistic indulgence. This is brought strongly to Lily’s attention when Yao is killed in a hit and run, leaving three final cryptic words: Tea, Tiger and Dragon and with that all that he knows about Madame Li’s fortune is lost. But can Lily still recover it using his final words?

Overall Thoughts

On the whole this hasn’t been a month of really good or astounding reads so it was great that this novel reversed this situation. Lily Wu is a brilliant young female sleuth, who is active, intelligent and not hampered with romantic entanglements which undermine her sleuthing work. This novel is the first (and also technically last) story where a man courting Lily significantly features, but readers have little fear that this romance will change Lily; like Sherlock Holmes, there is distinct level of detachment with Lily. Moreover, like Holmes, due to this being emotionally a very difficult case, Lily is keen to stress the futility of indulging in tears, which cannot aid the case and those involved. This can temporarily make her seem quite cold, especially after Yao’s death, but it is a way of thinking Janice soon sees the value of. With Lily there is always an air of mystery. Janice is incredibly close to her, but even she does not fully know what goes on inside Lily’s mind and this is an air of mystery which intrigues and lures in rather than frustrates the reader. I find it interesting how she becomes a social ‘chameleon,’ ‘chang[ing] effortlessly into whatever character the occasion requires.’

A slightly more unusual building from Waikiki area in Hawaii in the 1950s

However, Lily Wu is not the only interesting character in the book and characterisation is definitely an arena Sheridan always excelled at in these stories, aided by the fact that she sets them in places and communities she had experience of. Moreover, it is in her characterisation that several unexpected twists come into the story, as she allows the reader to fall into viewing a character one way, only to bring include an event which then reveals them in a different light. The Waikiki widow is also an intriguing and engaging character. On the surface she is someone you could easily find repellent; party-mad, man-mad and image-focused etc., yet there is more to her than that. She is an enigmatic figure, who is far more complex. We get hints of this from Janice early on in the narrative when she describes her as being ‘consumed by some inner fire – and it was no hard, gemlike flame, either.’ Janice also insightfully writes that ‘taking her features apart, you find that she isn’t beautiful, but there’s something about her, she seems to generate excitement.’

Image result for the waikiki widow by juanita sheridan

As I mentioned earlier in my post the Communist civil war raging in mainland China, saw a massive surge of refugees entering Hong Kong between 1945 and 1951. Leaving China becomes a very difficult process at this point and this aspect of the plot is certainly one of its strengths, as it gives it a certain grit and it also makes the world of the book painfully realistic. Sheridan gives an insightful and interesting window into the late 1940s and early 50s, even making the world of tea importing and exporting unusual and mysterious. Succinct lines here and there also hint engagingly at the dramatic changes which took place in China in the first half of the 20th century. The book also has a certain extra grit to its atmosphere due to unusual violence which takes place; torture to feet and backs, which has not been present in the earlier stories. Normally this sort of thing is not my cup of tea at all, but I think because Sheridan uses it so sparingly and doesn’t become overly graphic, it actually becomes an effective part of the novel.

Related image

Vintage Postcard

If I was being picky I would say the only issue with the book is that the ending is slightly rushed, but nevertheless this is a strong and satisfying finale for Lily Wu and Janice Cameron and I am sad that I have reached the end of the series. I definitely wish Sheridan had written more novels featuring these two as there is so much room for further character development and change and her choice of setting is also brilliant. Part of me also wishes that these characters would be adapted for TV or film and in fact Sheridan was involved at one point in adapting one of the novels for Hollywood. But another part of me thinks it would be a bad idea, as it would be so easy for script writers to overly simplify Lily Wu’s character and give any love interest an overly-inflated role, thus ruining one of the series’ main strengths. *sighs*

Rating: 4.5/5

See also:

The Mamo Murders (1952)

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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8 Responses to Great Series Finale in Juanita Sheridan’s The Waikiki Widow (1953)

  1. TomCat says:

    My memory is a bit fuzzy on this series (read them back in 2009-ish), but remember liking this one the best and agree with you about the ending. Again, the details have somewhat faded, but remember thinking the ending was rushed and, as a consequence, felt as if the plot collapsed in the final quarter. Wasn’t there a sudden increase in bodies towards the end? That’s pretty much all I remember about the book.

    A shame that her fourth (standalone) novel, What Dark Secret, was never reprinted. It got a positive notice from Anthony Boucher and the book has an interesting back-story. Sheridan credited her dentist, Dorothy Dudley, with co-authorship of the book as payment for her son’s braces.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I wouldn’t say the plot collapsed, it’s just that the final proof needed to finish the case as it were, was a little bit rushed. Wouldn’t say the body count gets unwieldy at the end. Only about 2 bodies, taking in the final third of the book. I had forgotten about WDS, though the RMP intros to the other works have mentioned the backstory. Annoyingly though it seems it is not cheap to procure. Hopefully someone will decide to reprint it.

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  2. realthog says:

    Golly, I may have owned that omnibus you illustrate — although I don’t recall the novel in question. Copies of most of that omnibus series were dumped as remainders into the UK (in the late 1970s/early 1980s, if I recall aright), and I bought bunches of them and guzzled them at speed, oh yes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought they were an odd assortment of stories. I wouldn’t really have put Sheridan’s work alongside Gardner’s, in terms of style. I wouldn’t have said people who Perry Mason novels are necessarily going to love Sheridan’s work.

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      • realthog says:

        It was a bookclub of some kind, and the aim was t give members variety. And so the volumes typically featured strange bedfellows. I rather enjoyed them for that reason: they encouraged me to read stuff I’d not normally have looked at/had never heard of, and often enough I found it rewarding.

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