Juanita Sheridan is one of a handful of authors that I love to instantly recommend and use as evidence that 1940s mystery fiction was not all old ladies and country villages, (don’t worry Miss Marple I still love you!) Such a tendency to rabbit on about Sheridan and her series detective Lily Wu, has led to an article in CADs magazine and even a chapter in Eric Sandberg’s The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives (plugging over). However, I have only reviewed Sheridan’s last two Lily Wu novels on the blog, so it seemed like a good idea to go back to the start of the quartet and fill in the gaps. I am somewhat of a completest.
Interestingly Anthony Boucher was quite the fan of Lily Wu. She was not the first Asian woman to be the principal detective of a novel, (see Sheridan’s What Dark Secret – incidentally legend has it she gave co-author rights to her dentist, Dorothy Dudley, in exchange for background information and a pair of braces for her son, Ross.) Yet Wu was the first Asian female principal detective in a series of novels, and she has Janice Cameron as her Watson narrator. Despite this first novel being set in New York, both protagonists originate from Hawaii, where the remaining three novels of the series are set.
Sheridan led an unconventional life, beginning with her unpredictable childhood, which fostered a great deal of independence and self-reliance within her. She is said to have married eight times, unlike her protagonists who remain single throughout their adventures, yet similarly to this pair, Sheridan knew what financial hardship was like. Her relationship with her son seems to have been somewhat problematic. He was fostered by a family in Beverly Hill before being adopted by his maternal grandmother, (during which time Sheridan was making ends meet by working as a script girl and writing screenplays.) She then moved to Hawaii in the 1930s where she transitioned into being a writer and her life here and the people she met, leave their mark on her writing. Although, she often said life was too colourful for fiction, claiming no one would believe the things she or others had experienced. Her own experiences include: ‘having been clubbed by a gun, choked into unconsciousness by a man she never saw, and on two occasions “awakened from a sound sleep to find a pair of strange hands reaching for me through the dark…”’ So what may seem like melodramatic pockets of violence in this story, in some ways are not so far-fetched as modern-day believers may presume. Sheridan would go on to “kidnap” her own son when his guardian refused to give him up, though by 1941 he was back with his maternal grandmother and Sheridan was in New York. Lily Wu nearly made it onto TV, but Sheridan couldn’t handle working with the Hollywood employees, something which I feel is a great shame as the series would work well on TV. Sheridan eventually settled in Mexico with her last husband. She worked as a translator, though her final days were of extreme discomfort due to a broken hip. It is rather sad to note that Ross only received a postcard in 1974 to let him know of his mother’s death. All of this interesting information, (and more), on Sheridan can be found in the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press edition of this book and re-reading it has made me wonder whether Sheridan’s own life experiences influenced her decision to never have her central female characters tied down to a man nor go on to become mothers.
However, on to today’s read, which begins with Janice Cameron being imminently kicked out of her rented room, desperately hunting for a replacement. She had come to New York to fulfil her own version of the American dream, yet her expectations after 10 days had been reduced to ‘one bare essential – simply a place to sleep.’ But her luck begins to turn around when Lily Wu answers her advert, saying she is going to rent a room in a rooming house in Washington Square, and wishes to share with her, thus splitting the cost. First impressions reveal a ‘drab’ and ‘soberly’ dressed Lily, yet any assumptions made are revised when they go to the property, changing as radically as Lily’s change in wardrobe.
Initially Janice assumes that the shenanigans involved in renting the room were merely employed to circumvent racial prejudice, yet it’s not long before she notices discrepancies in the some of my statements Lily makes to her fellow boarders and also begins to wonder what Lily’s real purpose in living there is. Janice’s suspicions gradually increase as the book unfolds as various incidences crops up: Lily knocked out on the bedroom floor, but unwilling for the police to be contacted; Lily missing from her bed at night, the night which is followed by an unpleasant discovery in the morning of the new superintendent being found dead. Lily is highly interested in the man and his belongings. Early on it is assumed to be a natural death, but of course the M word soon arises, and the inhabitants of the rooming house are faced with an uninspiring police office who is happy to jump on any seemingly obvious conclusion. But how far can Janice trust her new roommate? Is her mission a separate one, or part and parcel of the murder plot?
One of the first things I noticed from this second reading was how the first book differs in direction from the other three novels. Although there is Lily’s drive to complete her mission, the murder mystery plot, whilst ‘snappy,’ as one blogger puts it, in incidences, is propelled in a more naturalistic fashion. However, this is not a criticism as it is appropriate to the plot overall. Lily in this first novel has not been conferred “Great” amateur sleuth status, which fits in with how personal the case is revealed to be for her. In the later cases when there is greater distance between her and the situation, she more easily adopts the amateur sleuth role.
The verisimilitude of the piece continues into the setting and characters, though this is not surprising given that the rooming/boarding house conditions are ones Sheridan would have likely been familiar with. This type of community ties into a behaviour which is prevalent in the story, that of characters making many surface level judgements of each other. Yet I don’t feel the book endorses this habit and it even catches Janice out more than once. The physical descriptions of the characters are something which comes up a lot and the blogger Dead Yesterday brings up a number of interesting points around this issue in their review, (which you should definitely read as her synopsis is far better than mine – apologies my head is in the shed this week, so this post is a bit more rambling than usual.) Lily is not immune from this narrative trope and whilst you could regard it as a form of objectification, this second read found my thoughts aligning this focus on the physical with the idea of first impressions. If all you can go on is what the other person is presenting, and if they say little to nothing about themselves, then exteriors, be they appearance, speech or behaviour, is all you have, to form your opinions of others. Of course, the narrative goes on to show how deceptive externals can be.
I also enjoy in this series how Sheridan provides a fresh coat of paint to the sleuth/Watson dynamic. Janice is no victim of hero worship and there are several points in the text when she attempts to adjust the pattern of their relationship, to prevent Lily’s will from prevailing over her own. Whilst I would not say Janice is wholly successful, I think her remonstrations do have an impact on Lily. Lily, who at the start of the book is certainly no overt sleuth, is far more reticent when it comes to information, absorbing more than she transmits. This behaviour leads to a great deal of frustration on Janice’s part, who demands some explanations and in turn Lily has to learn over the course of the book how to accept help from others. The formation of their friendship is built over the story, as in some ways Lily is as great a mystery as the murdered man and Janice is not above spying on her. For the modern reader knowing that there are sequels to this book, Lily’s behaviour may be regarded as highly suspicious, but experience dictates that an honest explanation will be forthcoming. Yet I do wonder whether contemporary readers would have been so sanguine. Would they have been less trusting, like Janice, wondering if Lily is an accomplice or the culprit? Given the rapid changes going on in mystery writing during the 1940s, especially in America, a young female protagonist could no longer be presumed by the reader to be a heroine in need of rescuing. They were just as capable of being the baddie, despite pleasant veneers.
Unlike my last re-read I would say this one was a definite success and as my intro should have warned, Sheridan’s series is one I can heartily recommend.
Calendar of Crime: January (5) Other January Holiday (Chinese New Year)
On a very bizarre final note I noticed in this story that the non-Asian characters are introduced to the game of rock paper scissors by their Chinese hosts at a Chinese New Year dinner. This grabbed my attention as I had never considered when the game first appeared, nor where it originated from and a quick google search does reveal that its earliest version began in China. So that’s my something new learnt for the day.