“My name is Wu. Lily Wu”: A forgotten gem from 1940s American Detective Fiction

This post is an adaption of the article I wrote for CADs magazine, a few years ago, about Lily Wu; one of my favourite fictional sleuths from the 1940s and 50s.

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She may not be the female version of James Bond, despite the quote in the title, but in my opinion Lily Wu remains an elusive and enigmatic fictional Chinese detective, who is certainly adept at spying. Lily is the creation of Juanita Sheridan, who was born in 1906 in Oklahoma. Sheridan led an eventful and adventurous life, spending a substantial amount of her time living hand to mouth whilst trying to promote her fledging writing career in Hawaii, where she lived for a time in the 1930s and it is therefore unsurprising that many of the Lily Wu novels are set there. Sheridan was married 8 times and at one point “kidnapped” her own son from his grandmother, who had been made his legal guardian and she also claims to have known a woman who got away with murder. I share a bit more about Sheridan life in my review of her first Lily Wu novel.

I believe Sheridan’s background enabled her to create such an authentic and realistic sleuth, especially during an era where racial stereotyping was prevalent. Sheridan wrote four novels in the Lily Wu series: The Chinese Chop (1949), The Kahuna Killer (1951), The Mamo Murders (1952) and The Waikiki Widow (1953). However, this post will be looking at the first of these, which is set in 1940s New York with murder occurring within a closed set of suspects. The paths of Lily and our series’ Watson-like narrator, Janice Cameron, (who both originate from Hawaii,) converge due to the post-war housing shortage and they end up sharing a room in a Washington Square rooming house. It is not long before the body count begins and through the eyes of Janice, we witness her and Lily solving not only murders, but also the mystery of who Lily is. This becomes an increasingly pertinent point as the story progresses as Lily’s behaviour and reason for wanting to move into this particular rooming house become more and more suspicious.

Our first encounter with Lily is when she organises with Janice to move into a rooming house together, the latter eager to accept because her landlady wants to evict her. But it soon transpires that Lily wants Janice to ‘pay the balance of the rent’ (Sheridan, 1949: 16) in the name of Lily Wood. Lily’s behaviour here could be considered as ‘funny business,’ (Sheridan, 1949: 16) as Janice initially thinks. But this idea is soon demolished by Janice herself, who goes on to reason that ‘easterners don’t know Orientals so well as Islanders, who live where the population of Asiatics is very high: a New Yorker might refuse to rent to a Chinese girl’ (Sheridan, 1949: 16). In this instance ‘Islanders’ can be meant to refer to places such as Hawaii and although we may feel uncomfortable at the use of the term ‘Orientals,’ it was a word commonly used at the time Sheridan was writing.  The issue outlined by Janice fits in with the social context this book was set in; 1940s America. Although President Roosevelt ‘repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts that had placed severe restrictions on Chinese immigration and rights to citizenship in the late 19th and 20th centuries,’ (Hoover Archive) in 1943, there was still a great deal of prejudice and anxiety towards non-white ethnicities. Daniels, Fay and Tortorello (1998) asseverate this, looking to the evidence provided by the Roper Organisation, which conducted surveys for Fortune magazine (1932-1950). For example, ‘Burns Roper maintain[ed] that 60 or 70 years ago, many Americans view[ed] racial minorities almost as a separate species’ (Daniels, Fay and Tortorello, 1998: 47). Moreover, one survey question in 1948 asked whether people would ‘prefer not to have… Italians, Catholics, Negroes, Protestants, Chinese, Jews, Mexicans, Filipinos… move into… [their] neighbourhood to live’ (Daniels, Fay and Tortorello, 1998: 48) and 68% of people asked, said they would prefer this. In light of this it is easy to see why Lily asks for Janice’s help, although it soon becomes apparent that Lily has an ulterior motive for moving into rooming house in Washington Square. This suspicion is crystallised by Janice when she sums up that Lily was ‘obsessed by some secret, inexorable purpose closely connected with this place and the people in it’ (Sheridan, 1949: 57).

Sleuths such as Miss Marple arguably use gender and age stereotypes as a form of camouflage to disguise their detective purposes, and I would contend that Lily Wu is no different, also utilising stereotypes to her own advantage. However, I would suggest the stereotypes Lily faces are predominately race focused, but they do also overlap with gender issues.  Lily uses these perceptions to her own advantage to solve the murders which take place in The Chinse Chop, whilst completing her own mission.

Racial stereotyping, or as Janice calls it ‘the Fu Manchu bogy about Oriental people,’ (Sheridan, 1949: 67), is present in many ways in this novel; the issue of housing mentioned previously being a prime example. Two keys ways in which Lily is implicitly stereotyped in the story are her external appearance, which is emphasised to the extent of objectifying her as an exotic object and the ingrained attitude that Asiatic people are deceitful. An example of the first stereotype can be found in the frequent descriptions of Lily, such as in exposition of the mystery where it is said that ‘her hair was glossy black and thick, coiled at the nape of her small neck. Her face was oval, with flawless amber skin’ (Sheridan, 1949: 15).  Furthermore, characters such as Bela Palyi. (an inmate of the building), ‘gape’ (Sheridan, 1949: 19) on first meeting her and Janice asserts that ‘this girl was beautiful’ (Sheridan, 1949: 19). The third person means of denoting Lily gives this example an objectifying quality as though Janice is defining Lily by her looks. This is affirmed by Bela’s offer to paint her portrait, which will be discussed further later.

Moving on to the second stereotype, deceitfulness or duality is an attribute consistently attached to Lily, especially by the narrator Janice. This is epitomised when Janice sums up Lily as:

‘The girl I lived with was most incomprehensible of all. Lying, unscrupulously rearranging other lives to suit her hidden purpose. Stealing from the dead. Pretending to be artless and gay when actually she was infinitely complex and deep…’ (Sheridan, 1949: 57).

Yet this stance is ameliorated as the novel progresses and Janice is made aware of the purpose behind Lily’s mysterious behaviour: it is not due to any inherent slyness but fuelled by a desire for justice. This is hinted at later in the story when Janice says that Lily ‘answered in a velvet-soft voice which belied the steel determination which drove her…’ (Sheridan, 1949: 139). Moreover, Janice’s recourse to the deceitful stereotype may be partially due to her inability in the novel to fully understand or read Lily, which is illustrated when she says, ‘Lily looked into my face, her back eyes opaque, her features impassive as a cameo carved in amber’ (Sheridan, 1949: 60). In the subsequent mysteries they investigate Janice has fewer difficulties in interpreting Lily’s actions.

These two stereotypes within the novel tie into Homi Bhabha’s work on stereotypes and colonialism. Bhabha (1994) asserts that ‘the stereotype… is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is…already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated’ (Bhabha, 1994: 94-95). Within the character of Janice, this definition is clearly visible as it can be argued that Janice’s need to emphasise or the very least need to consistently comment on the duality of Lily is an example of a stereotype which ‘must be anxiously repeated’. Of course, once Janice’s anxiety and uncertainty disappears, the recourse to such stereotypes also vanishes.  Furthermore, Bhabha (1994) additionally suggests that stereotypes are utilised to fix the character of a particular culture or set of people. This becomes a form of security for the person creating the stereotype because it reduces their anxiety over the unknown, by seemingly defining it and making it known. This is done both negatively and positively in The Chinese Chop. For example, the stereotype of deceitfulness provides attempts to negatively fix Lily’s character, whilst the focus on Lily’s external appearance can be regarded as ambiguous in that on the one hand the descriptions emphasise she is beautiful, yet they also try to fix Lily’s character as an exotic object, and as something to be acquired like a work of art. This is reinforced by the art references to Lily, such as her face being likened to a ‘cameo carved in amber,’ and again Bela’s offer to paint her can be seen as a very visual attempt to fix and record Lily. Moreover, there are expectations or ideas linked to beauty and beautiful women and this is a theme which will be explored later.   

The characters in this book, in their treatment of Lily, also create an atmosphere of “otherness,” which is another key concept in the works of Bhabha and Jean-Francois Staszak. Staszak (2008) defines “otherness” as occurring when someone ‘transform[s] a difference into otherness so as to create an in-group and an out-group,’ (Staszak, 2008: 43) which leads to a situation where a ‘member of a dominated out-group, whose identity is considered lacking, … may be subject to discrimination by the in-group’ (Staszak, 2008: 43). In addition, Bhabha (1994) points out the duality of otherness in that it ‘is at once an object of desire and derision’ (Bhabha, 1994: 96). The quality of ‘desire’ can be seen in the physical descriptions of Lily that have been mentioned previously. They may present her as beautiful, but they also separate her from the other inmates of the rooming house. Whilst otherness as ‘an object of… derision’ is also evidenced in the mystery through characters such as Captain Webber, the police officer in charge of solving the first murder. On questioning Janice as to why she chose to board with a Chinese person, it is noted that ‘his tone indicated that in his lexicon this made… [Janice] a kind of freak’ (Sheridan, 1949: 70). Here not only is Lily deemed as being from a racial ‘out-group,’ who is not desirable as a roommate in Captain Webber’s eyes, but Janice is also regarded as “other” for choosing to believe differently. Furthermore, the exotic nature attributed to Lily ties into the concept of otherness, as Staszak (2008) defines the exotic as ‘belonging to a faraway, foreign country or civilisation and thus demarcated from the norms established in and by the west’ (Staszak, 2008: 43). Consequently, by being delineated as exotic, Lily is also being ‘demarcated from the norms established in and by the west,’ which can be seen in some of the attitudes other characters have towards her.

Lily Wu uses racial stereotyping as a form of camouflage for her investigations. An important stereotype which I have discussed is the preoccupation with Lily’s aesthetics, which can have the effects of objectifying her as exotic and of “fixing” her identity. However, through the eyes of Janice, whose attitudes are being transformed by her continued friendship with Lily, we, as the reader, can see how Lily uses her appearance to her own advantage. For example, Janice states that:

‘Lily’s face was pale, her dark eyes were dilated. She looked pathetically tiny and fragile in that white satin slip. At the same time I became suddenly aware that her fragility was completely deceptive. This girl was neither weak nor timid; she was strong as steel. And her spirit indomitable’ (Sheridan, 1949: 26).

This example epitomises the juxtaposition of her Lily’s appearance with her real nature and character. Moreover, this jarring of the external and internal can almost be considered a trope of golden age crime fiction, it being used by other authors such as Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth when describing their own female detectives. Like Miss Marple and Miss Silver, having a deceptively benign appearance, helps Lily to solve the mysteries in the rooming house without arousing the suspicions of the guilty.

This is also illustrated when the police arrive after the discovery of the first body. Lily is depicted by Janice as sitting on a piano stool, ‘one foot curled under her, the other, childishly small in a flat embroidered slipper, dangling inches from the floor’ (Sheridan, 1949: 62). Janice warns against us being fooled by appearances and suggests that despite her relaxed demeanour, Lily is alert with ‘the same self-protection as the uncanny stillness of a wild forest creature which knows the stalking enemy is at hand’ (Sheridan, 1949: 62). Usually the detective figure holds the position of hunter, but in this metaphor, the roles have been reversed as it emphasises the precarious position of Lily, who is seen as “other”. Moreover, the sentence is perhaps a little ambiguous as to who the ‘stalking enemy’ is, as it is conceivable that this could mean either the murderer or the police. However, Lily’s cool and collected persona enables her to continue her investigations.

Additionally, a further consequence of characters focusing on Lily’s external appearance, is that they undervalue her intelligence. But Lily utilises this too as a way of playing for time after her first police interview and by ‘playing dumb’ (Sheridan, 1949: 71) she does not have to reveal what she knows until much later in the narrative. Moreover, she also uses the stereotype of Chinese women being quiet so she can scout the rooming house when she and Janice first arrive. However, Janice, who has Chinese friends in Hawaii, knows this quietness to be a misnomer and realises what Lily is actually doing. It can also be argued that Lily uses stereotypes more playfully as an early misconception Janice has about Lily is that she is the mistress of Mr Char, who is with Lily when Janice first meets her. Yet, despite having guessed Janice’s misapprehension, Lily does not clarify this error to Janice, and therefore the readers, until near the end of the book. When Janice asks Lily why she did not clear up this misunderstanding sooner, Lily says she ‘didn’t… because you obviously enjoyed so much thinking of me as his mistress’ (Sheridan, 1949: 132). This relates back to the issue of stereotypes, which theorists, such as Bhabha, suggest we hold on to because they reassure us. In Janice’s eyes Lily’s beauty, fashionable clothes and therefore her “exoticness” lead her to assume a sexual relationship rather than a platonic or familial one and because these notions fit in with Janice’s existing conceptions and frameworks it takes her a while to discard them.

Like the elderly female detectives of the golden age: Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Mrs Bradley to name but a few, Lily Wu faces and utilises stereotyping during her investigations. She may not have to fight against ageist clichés, but she does have to battle racial stereotypes which objectify her or portray her as deceptive. However, having a Watson-like narrator with a more informed experience and knowledge of Chinese people, means Sheridan’s characterisation of Lily avoids fixing her permanently with crude stereotypes and allows her to be an interesting and well-rounded character. Moreover, in the same vein as the detectives mentioned above, Lily’s almost at times omnipotent and omniscient qualities make her a delight to read as the crime is revealed like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, into a picture, the reader knows Lily has been expecting.

It is a great shame that Juanita Sheridan only wrote a quartet of novels featuring this amateur sleuth, as I think she did a lot to diversify the pool of fictional female sleuths at the time. Not just in terms of her ethnicity but also with her combined youth and singleness. Although Lily has her admirers, she is never paired off, and in some ways romance is quite a deceptive trope in this series. All of which makes these books a very refreshing read and I would recommend tracking down copies of these mysteries. I also feel Lily Wu and her stories would be great for television and she joins my very long list of classic crime series I would like to see adapted.

Bibliography

Bhabha, H. (1994). The Location of Culture. Oxon: Routledge.

Daniels, S., Fay, B. and Tortorello, N. (1998). Americans’ Changing Attitudes toward Women and Minorities. The Public Perspective. (December/January), pp. 47-49

Hoover Archive. (n.d.). Chinese Americans. Available: http://hoover.archives.gov/exhibits/China/Chinese_Americans/#1940. Last accessed 15/03/2015.

Sheridan, J (1949; 2000). The Chinese Chop. Colorado: The Rue Morgue Press.

Staszak, J. (2008). Other/Otherness. In: Thrift, N. and Kitchin, R. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography Volume 8. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science. pp. 43-47.

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