The long-awaited review of this title has finally arrived! This is a non-series title by Sheridan, who, if she is remembered at all, is known for her quartet of novels featuring amateur sleuth Lily Wu. You may be wondering about Dorothy Dudley, the other author accredited to this title. Based on what I have read in the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press reprints of the Lily Wu stories, Dudley was Sheridan’s family dentist. It is said that Dudley ‘got co-author status in return for providing background information as well as – according to family legend – braces for Sheridan’s young son.’ Well that’s one way to pay the bills! Like the later Lily Wu novels, today’s read features another female Chinese amateur sleuth, this time a reporter named Angie Tudor.
However, events in this story are seen from the viewpoint of Chicagoan dentist, Lib Prentiss, who at the start of the tale is just arriving in Honolulu. Lib is on holiday to see her old school friend Gloria Deming, who was born in Hawaii. With Lib’s Kerry Blue dog, Prudence, safely quarantined, Lib does not have long to prepare for the aloha party Gloria is putting on for her. Naturally it soon transpires that not all is well within the Deming household, as Gloria is planning to divorce her husband Edward in a matter of days. Infidelity is one of the reasons, but there seems to be another more pressing matter which Gloria is reluctant to reveal. Even more awkward is the fact that Edward intends to bring along his lover to the aloha party. Yet the arrival of Tanya Adams is far more shocking than the reader or the guests anticipate. Tanya may only be 35, but she has a long past, a past which unsurprisingly has painfully touched the lives of the other party guests including Lib’s.
Despite the idyllic island setting WW2 makes its presence felt and during the party a complete island blackout is scheduled, so planes can fly over, drop flares and identify vulnerable areas for attack. It is of course during this blackout that murder strikes, and Lib gets the unpleasant honour of quite literally stumbling on to the corpse of Tanya. No one has an alibi and increasingly everyone seems to have a motive. The Hawaiian police are on the case and are far from impressed at everyone’s tendency to withhold information. But can Angie Tudor, Gloria’s friend, with patience and skill, unpick the mystery?
It took me a few pages to orientate myself, as I unfortunately went into the book assuming Angie was the narrator. However, that misunderstanding resolved, everything started to make more sense. Lib initially sounds like your typical heroine in a holiday-set mystery, throwing out lines such as: ‘Surely there must be a minimum of discord in such a place, thought I; if ever there existed a spot of perfect peace and beauty, it was this lovely island.’ Thankfully though she quickly begins to break away from this mould and reveals she is quite the tough cookie underneath. Perhaps setting her protagonist in her forties, rather than her twenties, freed Sheridan from some of the usual heroine in jeopardy tropes.
As with her later Lily Wu novels, Sheridan is adept at depicting close female friendships, in which blunt honesty has its place, with Gloria for instance throwing out lines like this one: ‘Really, Libitha Prentiss, those hips are as big as Diamond Head.’ Yet Lib is no mild-mannered biddy and mentally she can be quite critical of others at times. One such victim of her caustic thoughts is Wilfred French when she writes, ‘As a matter of self-discipline I made several attempts to talk to him, without success. He was easily forty, but I’d have been willing to wager that his I. Q. wasn’t over fifteen.’ Interestingly this assumption comes back to haunt her later in the tale. Gloria’s husband is not overlooked either in Lib’s critical assessments:
‘Edward must at one time have been handsome, if you like the Lew Cody type, the perennial Butterfly Man. I could imagine him at twenty-five: svelte, blond, with practiced charm. Now he was a wilted butterfly, indeed.’
These waspish moments are fun to read, as Lib’s sharpness is usually encapsulated within a well-chosen phrase or two. However, I also love how she can equally just totally lose it, when someone goes too far. The prime motivation for this loss of aplomb is when people start trying to mess with her dog. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose dog is being mistreated! Lib truly goes ape at two points, including assaulting a man who looks like he is going to attack her dog.
Though it has to be said that Lib probably does not put as much energy and effort into her interest concerning the murder case. She is a helpful conduit for Angie and others, when she finally reveals and remembers certain pieces of information. She is not fully a Watson narrator, like Janice Cameron in the Lily Wu quartet, but she performs a similar function. This is understandable given that Angie and Lib only meet for the first time at the party and given Lib’s conflicted loyalties, it is natural that Angie is not completely upfront to her about what she knows concerning the case and what theories she might have about it. However, there is an amusing scene in which Angie tries to help Lib recall something using a calming technique. Yet, Lib humorously upends the hitherto achieved serenity with this thought: ‘Angie Tudor might be able at will to tap her own subconscious, but I was willing to bet she had never tried it while suffering from sunburn.’ (Lib having made that classic beach mistake of falling asleep in the sun…)
In the opening chapters of the book we get to learn a little of Angie’s past. She is an orphan who was found on the doorstep of a mission in Kauai and her anglicised name comes from a woman who cared for her. A party guest also shares that she is a:
‘Bit of a sleuth, too, especially where Chinese malefactors are concerned. Works with the police once in a while when they get stuck.’
When it comes to the night of the murder Angie has already left the party and despite being called in first afterwards, she does not come to the investigative forefront for quite some time. She has the odd conversation here and there, ever patient when someone once more refuses to share what they know. It is in the final third when Lib trusts her more that we see more of Angie, mainly because Lib is trying to get a hold of to tell her something important.
One point that puzzled me was when Angie speaks about inquests:
‘As a matter of fact, a coroner’s inquest has been proven to be rather useless most of the time. It gives the actual criminal time to prepare a defense and puts him on his guard, and if murder has been done, it does not obviate the additional necessity of a formal trial by jury. We do not have inquests in Hawaii any more. Neither do we have many unsolved murder cases.’
I tried to look online to see if Hawaii did or did not run inquests in that time period, but I was not able to find an answer. It seems like an odd statement to make if it was untrue, given that Sheridan lived in Hawaii. Maybe she just didn’t want to write one in her book!
Divorce is not an uncommon thread in classic crime narratives, yet I think Sheridan’s inclusion of it is more detailed and nuanced than usual. The discussion about it is franker and people’s responses are more complicated. In particular the financial vulnerability of a woman considering divorce is an issue Sheridan raises, and the theme of a man who has unscrupulously used another’s money and left them in trouble, is one she picks up on in her later work.
Given my love of Sheridan’s Lily Wu novels I was keen to read this book to see what Lily’s predecessor was like. They share some similarities in physique and their formidableness, as well as their shared combination of friendliness and conversational playfulness with an equal sense of detachment. However, Lily is far more prominent in her stories, yet interestingly I would say Angie is far more in with the police. The text after all says Angie helps them on cases, whilst Lily operates very much independently from the police. Additionally, when it comes to Chinese and Hawaiian culture, I think What Dark Secret is nearer to a “tourist” mystery, whilst the Lily Wu tales have a greater feeling of authenticity about them.
Despite perhaps quite simplistic beginnings, Sheridan builds up quite a complex case in this novel with number of puzzling details, an additional sudden death, and a plethora of shady suspects. Whilst Lib and Angie may not have quite the reader pull that Lily and Janice have, they make for an entertaining one-off duo and if you are able to find a copy of this book it is well worth the read.