Beginning in March the Dean Street Press are bringing us lucky readers a flurry of new authors to sample. The Puzzle Doctor on his blog has positively reviewed one of these titles already, by the writing duo E. & M. A. Radford. Today I am looking at another: Joan Cowdroy (1884-1946). She started out as a romance writer, but turned to crime, in the literary sense, in 1930 with The Mystery of the Sett. She had two series sleuths, Chief Inspector Gorham, who features in this first tale and a year later Cowdroy brought out her Asian amateur sleuth Mr Li Moh. In a number of her novels these two characters can be found working together and this is the case with today’s read. Given my love for Juanita Sheridan’s amateur sleuth, Lily Wu, I was immediately interested in trying Cowdroy’s work, as finding early depictions of Asian characters which are not crude caricatures steeped in stereotypes, is no easy task. I was keen to see how Cowdroy developed Moh’s character and how she dealt with the issues of racism and prejudice. Curtis Evans suggests that visiting her brother who lived and worked in the Far East may have influenced her decision to make one of her series sleuths Chinese. Evans goes as far as postulating that Cowdroy might have been the first British author to create a Chinese sleuth. The Dean Street Press are also reprinting another title by Cowdroy called Death Has No Tongue (1938) and given how much I enjoyed reading today’s read, I am looking forward to trying this one.
The Murder of Lydia, commences with Mr Moh getting some peace and quiet away from his in-laws, who he is having to holiday with at Whitesands Bay. It is in these quiet moments, chatting with his friend a local policeman called James Bond, (I know!), that we begin to piece together information about the inhabitants of a local villa owned by Colonel Rouncey. In particular we learn about his two nieces, Lydia and Rosalind Torrington. The former has a past history of stealing the latter’s fiancés and love interests and equally is the recipient of her great aunt’s inheritance, doling out a pittance to Rosalind. Unsurprisingly popular opinion invariably sees no fault in Lydia and due to Rosalind’s appalling temper sees the opposite in her. However, Cowdroy uses a number of small and at times misleading incidents to give us impressions of the sisters’ personalities as well as their current respective fiancés, including an episode in which it looks like Rosalind tried to push Lydia down a flight of stairs. Therefore no one will be surprised by the number one suspect, when the next morning Bond and Moh find the drowned body of Lydia on a buoy. Gorham finds his way into the case when the Chief Constable calls Scotland Yard in, feeling that he might be compromised. After all his youngest son is engaged to Rosalind and rumour had it, that he had fallen for Lydia… A trial by press and public opinion give the inquest a high sense of drama and tension. With the verdict in, Gorham is unsure they have found the right culprit, but he has his work cut out to work against the circumstantial evidence piling up in another direction…
I have decided to begin with my own personal principal point of interest, of Li Moh. How does he come across? Well Cowdroy develops an interesting back story for him, which is only hinted at here, so I can only hope she is more communicative in earlier books. It seems Moh has retired from the San Franciscan police force and has come to permanently reside in Britain, due to it being his wife’s home country. Cowdroy is intriguingly coy about revealing Moh’s marriage, as in the opening paragraphs you would be forgiven for assuming Moh was chaperoning a much younger orphan to visit suspicious relations. Suffice to say I would be interested to know if there is a presumed bigger age difference between the two of them. Nevertheless their marriage is presented as a happy one, with one daughter. He is shown to be a perfect husband in his ability to put up with his wife’s awful relatives, who seem to only tolerate him because of his amiability in paying for their board whilst staying with them. Moh is depicted as pretty much faultless, though his limited page presence makes this seem less peculiar. However, I think it made a nice change for the exaggeration to be positive, rather than negative. Moh has a very distinctive style of speaking, which havers into stereotype territory, but I don’t think it has a negative effect on the reader. In many ways I think his speech is acoustically pleasing and it is not made fun of, nor used against him by other characters, who in the main treat him on an equal footing and with respect. The example below is Moh’s response to Bond, when the villa’s dog runs off with his clothes, which he had left on the beach while he swam:
‘Blushing modesty is highly commendable in young, pure-minded officer […] But as nefarious quadruped has also removed towel I advise instant marathon to home of maternal parent while this unworthy, but fully clothed, person retrieves nether garments from military residence.’
This more personal side to Moh though, is curtailed after the murder of Lydia, as is Moh’s outsider view on British culture, which brings me to my one complaint with this book – WE DON’T GET TO SEE ENOUGH OF MOH! A character with so much potential as him should be centre stage or at very least as present as Gorham is. Alas though after the opening of the book, Moh is not seen very much. He accompanies Gorham on a few outings to do with the case, but he certainly never voices his theories, nor presumes the police are incapable of solving the case. This is partly due I think to the self-effacing nature of Moh, which he embodies to a high degree, though it never makes him undignified nor abased. I think for a GAD fan such as myself I am used to amateur sleuths who hog all the limelight, so it was shocking to see one, genuinely endeavour towards the opposite. I can only hope that in other tales, Moh gets a bigger page presence, as he seems like a very promising character and an important one in charting the depiction of Asian characters in mystery fiction.
However, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I did not like Gorham, as he holds the centre stage role very well and entertainingly so. This novel is another strong entry in the Dean Street Press catalogue, as the mystery element gives the reader plenty to get their teeth into, in terms of evidence, which at times can be rather duplicitous. Aside from the timings of alibis, there is also footprints, tide times and more! One alibi is particularly unusual, in which the suspect says they were assisting in the nursing of a sick pig. The difficult personalities of Rosalind and Lydia also add interest to the case, with the reader and Gorham trying to wade through biased public opinion to uncover the truth. The culprit is an unexpected one, as Cowdroy deploys a number of red herrings. I wouldn’t say the culprit is easily to guess, but neither does the reader feel cheated with some far-fetched possibility. I think much could be said for a link between this book and the work of Jane Austen, in particular to do with a certain character. Not that Cowdroy copies or lifts any plot trajectories but I think she does create a delightful reversion of certain aspects, shall we say. Of course to find out what on earth I am banging on about you’ll just have to read the book, which I highly recommend you do! Hopefully I will get around to reading Death Has No Tongue soon and I equally hope that the Dean Street Press will go on to reprint more of Cowdroy’s novels.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Drowning
Calendar of Crime: July (3) Primary action takes place in this month