This month the TNB have been coming up with their own nominations for the best detectives in fiction and TV. My own choices have ranged from spinster and academic sleuths to pain in the butts detectives and comic amateurs. If you want to catch up on the previous posts on my blog and other contributing blogs here are the links to Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3. My final two choices are both young smart female amateur sleuths this week. Whilst in in terms of lifestyle and location they are poles apart perhaps, they both experience prejudicial attitudes towards themselves; for one this is racial, whilst for the second the stereotypes revolve around femininity and disability.
So my first sleuth is Lily Wu, a young Chinese amateur sleuth, who was created by Juanita Sheridan in the late 1940s. It was this detective that I wrote about for the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, which is being published this month and for whom this TNB theme is in honour of. Review of this book will be coming soon (ish). Wu features in four novels, the first being The Chinese Chop (1949), which is set in New York and enables Wu and her Watson-like narrator, Janice to meet. The case they solve is a deeply personal one for Wu, allowing her to reclaim her father’s honour, which was lost through the fraudulent crimes of another. The remaining three novels, The Kahuna Killer (1951), The Mamo Murders (1952) and The Waikiki Widow (1953), are all set in Hawaii where Wu and Janice both originally came from and where Sheridan herself lived for a time. The cases in these three tales usually involve friends of Wu and Janice, as well as incorporating the tensions between native Hawaiians and American settlers, who invariably want to commercialise the place for tourism purposes.
So what sort of person is Wu? Well like some other great fictional detectives, such as Miss Marple, Wu is comprised of contradictory elements, in particular her childlike and innocent external appearance belies her intelligence, determination and power. It is not for nothing that Janice says in The Mamo Murders, that ‘I found it difficult to believe that I had once seen this languid little creature club a man unconscious.’ Another personal favourite is found in The Kahuna Killer, in which Janice says to Wu: “You look like a beautiful doll, Lily. You sound like Nemesis. Heaven help the woman – or man – who tries to outmanoeuvre you.”
Yet as other female detectives have done before her, Wu often utilises the gender and racial stereotypes others impose on her or assume she embodies, using them to her own advantage, before revealing to others their impressions of her are wrong, sometimes fatally so. However I would not say Wu is sly and in many ways her camouflaging is essential due to her increased vulnerability. Unlike Miss Marple she does not have ‘the Chief Constables of at least three counties in her pocket’ and instead is treated with much more suspicion from the police, especially in the first novel. In my chapter for the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives I remarked that Wu is unusual in being both a hunter (of criminals), yet is also in the position of the hunted as well, due to her ethnicity, age and gender.
Some readers at this point may be wondering why such an obscure sleuth is included in such a list as the 100 Greatest, especially given how few novels she appeared in. Yet I believe she really is an important fictional detective and go as far as saying in my chapter that she ‘broke the mould for the fictional representation of ethnic minorities.’ Mighty claim indeed, but I think the literary and historical context bear this statement out. Wu is, as far as I am aware, the first Asian female character in fiction, who is the principal detective in her series, rather than acting as an assistant to a sleuth, of which Murder, Chop, Chop (1942) by James Norman, is an example of the latter. I also think this series is a significant challenge to earlier and contemporary 20th century mystery novels which adhered more closely to the ‘Yellow Peril’ theory and throughout the stories the narratives often touch upon the racial prejudice Wu and her Chinese and native Hawaiian friends face. For instance in the opening novel, one of the reasons why Wu wants to room share with Janice is that Janice can negotiate the renting of the room, as Wu reveals that owners are reluctant to have her renting from them.
Gender stereotypes also play their role in this series and we as readers are often aware that single young women in vintage mystery fiction don’t often remain single for very long. Just looking at Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, there are immediately a number of such examples: The Secret Adversary (1922), The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), Why Didnt They Ask Evans? (1934), They Came to Baghdad (1951) and Destination Unknown (1954). Now I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but in series especially rather than one offs, when a female sleuth marries their partner in crime, her detecting role often undergoes a change or a reduction. There are some exceptions but not many. So one thing I have really quite enjoyed by the Wu novels is that she does not become embroiled in any romance subplot. She is detached, cool, competent and independent, yet neither is she shown as socially awkward, psychologically abnormal or unpleasant or struggling with commitment issues and in fact male admirers are hinted at in the stories. This latter point is crucial as so often singlehood for women is painted as bleak, undesirable or as a temporary waiting point until they find the one, but this is not the case in the Wu tales. Wu is happy in her single state and this reader at any rate did not find the series lacking in anyway as a consequence. Wu’s singleness is ironic though in comparison to her creator, who married possibly up to 8 times and even at one point kidnapped her own son. Perhaps Sheridan saw the dangers and potential pitfalls of romance and relationships, so wished to spare her creation from them, unlike other characters in the series.
Hopefully this short piece will have whetted your appetites to give Sheridan’s novels a try. Thankfully all four were reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press, meaning there availability is not too scarce. For more information on Sheridan and Lily Wu you can of course read my chapter in the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives and the Rue Morgue Press editions also contain an insightful introduction into Sheridan’s background and chaotic, yet adventurous life.
My final detective of choice is also my most historically recent, as Hans Olav Lahlum’s Patricia Borchmann’s fictional career begins in 1960s Norway, progressing into the 70s. To date only the first five books in the series have been translated into English, The Human Flies (2010), Satellite People (2015), The Catalyst Killing (2015), Chameleon People (2016) and The Anthill Murders (2017). So understandably my comments will be based on these five. Now Patricia is an amateur sleuth, within the Great Detective tradition and she assists Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen (aka K2), who receives the public recognition for solving the cases. Patricia from the very first time we meet her is paralysed from the waist down, after a car accident, and one of the things which has always stood out to me in this series is the way it tackles the themes of femininity and disability within the sleuthing sphere and the tangled relationship they weave.
Given the historical setting of the series, non-politically correct comments about women are not unsurprising in the story and K2 is not exempt from this behaviour, even bonding with one male suspect in the first novel over objectifying women. Yet this element is not just part of the cultural background and I believe this is because of Patricia, as these types of views within K2 meet their match in her, as she is a character whose physical difficulties and personality challenge them implicitly and explicitly and over the novels K2’s views concerning Patricia, almost reluctantly at times, change in the face of new evidence. Initially K2 does not deem Patricia sexually attractive, quite frankly because of her disabilities. Instead his descriptions of her infantilise her physically, (she ‘was in no way physically impressive’), and assert his own superiority as a defence mechanism against her social class and higher intellectual capabilities, as he does admit to feelings of embarrassment and chagrin when Patricia quickly finds the answer to something he has been struggling with for a while. Furthermore, repeatedly K2’s descriptions of Patricia place her in position of a ruler in a castle, such as she ‘now lived in a tidy and serene little kingdom,’ and ‘I was back sitting in the library at the White House in front of Princess Patricia,’ as well as ‘safely locked away in her own small kingdom…’ And at times I think this semantic field is used by K2 to hint at an element of despotism in Patricia and allows us to see K2’s moments of joy when he thinks Patricia does not know it all and has got it all wrong, as a form of rebellion against this. These descriptions by K2 are very important, even if they are not free from bias, as all of the first five books in the series are narrated by K2, so how we see Patricia is filtered through K2’s own flawed impressions.
Yet by books 3 and 4, K2’s stance towards Patricia begins to change, as in The Catalyst Killing, K2 begins to look past his preconceived notions about disabled women, (and the prejudice that they might be incapable or inappropriate for having a relationship with,) and instead sees Patricia as a human being and not solely as a resource or service. Equally when we get to The Chameleon People, K2 even begins to have unacknowledged jealousy when Patricia starts a relationship with someone, feelings which I don’t think K2 would have had at the start of the series.
Another reason why this series and Patricia as a sleuth are important is because of the window these stories open into how someone lives with a disability. Whilst Patricia may confront attitudes held by K2, Patricia’s detective work equally forces her to deal with the full reality of being disabled, with her detective work breaching her defensive measures, (i.e. voluntary isolation), and revealing hard hitting self-truths, as before she started helping K2 out, her world was very much an insular one, contained within her home and her substantial library. In addition her detective work reveals to her, her own capabilities, but also her limitations, which in the first novel certainly frightens her:
‘Thank you […] for letting me part of a very exciting and interesting case. But this welcome confirmation of my own intellectual capacity does not make the bitter truth that I have become a human fly myself any easier […] I was already a human fly, but only really realised it fully yesterday. Sitting here, I like to think that my mind is just as sharp, and that everything is as it was before the accident. But it is not – and never will be. I felt like a tortoise yesterday: clear in my thoughts, but physically handicapped and ridiculously unable to save myself if something did not go according to plan. Despite all the interesting experiences and people that I met, it was a nightmare from the time that I left this room until I got back here. I relived the confrontation in [spoiler removed] flat three times last night, and each time the ending was not a happy one. The first two times I was shot. In the third, I was roasted in my wheelchair when the building went up in flames and everyone else ran out.’
Initially after this case she does not think she ‘belong[s] out there in the real world,’ but thankfully she does seem to relinquish this point of view to a small extent in later tales.
Patricia may have her downsides, as after all no one is perfect, but she was a character I was drawn to straight away and she really is a very enjoyable sleuth, as in fact her health difficulties place her in the role of the quintessential armchair sleuth. However, whilst she invariably never visits the crime scenes, she is very capable at recreating them in her mind, finding solutions to their mysteries, based on her understanding of what she thinks should be there and her imaginativeness and mental flexibility contrast with K2’s more restricted conceptualisation skills. It is therefore through her intellectual capabilities that Patricia exercises her greatest form of mobility and for her knowledge is a form of power that at times she does exploit, tantalisingly withholding information or expressing such information in the form of commands, not always with an explanation but always with an expectation they be followed. Yet even in this area Patricia is not a static character, as both K2 and herself undergo a certain amount of development and change, as their encounters with one another force them to re-examine their approaches and behaviour.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on our favourite great detectives, reminding you of some old favourites and perhaps pointing out some new ones to try. If you are interested in finding out more about Hans Olav Lahlum’s series then take a peek at this interview I did with him a couple of years ago.