“I was going to get out of that house. Something evil lived there. Too many people, under a façade of amicable companionship, were disguising ugly secrets.”
With her first novel accepted for publication, Janice Cameron sees the chance to reinvent herself in New York City. The New York housing market is tough, though, especially in the dead of winter. Enter Lily Wu, a fellow Hawaiian who is of Chinese descent. Lily is looking for someone to share a room in a Washington Square townhouse, a very specific house. Why does it have to be that house, Janice wonders, and why tonight? She soon learns that all of its residents have something to hide—and that includes her new roommate Lily.
The Chinese Chop marks the debut of Lily Wu, the first female Asian detective. It’s also a snappy mystery in its own right, well worth reading even without that historic milestone. Juanita Sheridan provides a feminist take on the had-I-but-known novel: Lily and Janice may have ominous forebodings and get knocked on the head a few times, but they are tough and smart, giving back as good as they get. The book’s focus is the growing friendship between the two women, as they get to know and trust one another.
The house on Washington Square is full of eccentric would-be artists—jolly Bela, who paints schlock for tourists; shy illustrator Evelyn, overly protective of her high-strung roommate Louise; the soft and resentful Jarvis; prissy Doris, who seems far too interested in what the other tenants are up to; and her too-handsome fiancé Henri, a hero of the French Resistance. Sheridan is at her best skewering the pretensions of these artistes. Her descriptions are mercilessly on point (“his lard-colored features look as if they might have been a sculptor’s leftovers slapped together any old how to make a face”). Yet she also takes the time to set up the characters and their relationships before the murders begin. There is a warmth and a convincing sense of rackety bohemianism here that makes it understandable that these misfits would cling together even as they’re being knocked off right and left.
The relationship between Lily and Janice begins more organically than many other Holmes-Watson partnerships. As an Asian-American, Lily needs a white roommate to ensure that her housing application (submitted as “Lily Wood”) will be accepted. Janice’s classified ad catches her eye because she assumes, correctly, that a Hawaiian will be less prejudiced against Asians.
Fortunately, Lily does not experience overt racism from her new housemates. They accept without question the “Oriental” stereotypes she seems to embody. Janice does question them, however. Unlike the others, she never makes the mistake of underestimating her roommate, realizing that “her fragility was completely deceptive. This girl was neither weak nor timid; she was strong as steel. And her spirit was indomitable.” It puzzles her that at one moment Lily is meekly submissive, while the next she’s a sexy dragon lady. At other times, “Lily wore her smooth, blank look, which meant that she was concealing her thoughts with that Oriental inscrutability which she could assume at will.” Janice knows that Lily is lying about her past and acting out different personas to keep the others off guard; she just doesn’t know why. It takes a very long time for Lily to trust her, with the unintended result that Janice starts to wonder whether Lily herself might be the killer.
Lily Wu. 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, obsessed by some secret inexorable purpose connected with this place and the people in it. She had already used me as a front to get into the house. If I stayed, I might find myself involved; I had personal projects of my own which were important enough without adding the problems of anyone else.
Since this is the beginning of a series starring Lily Wu, it will come as no surprise to learn that she has her reasons for these suspicious actions. Knowing that she will inevitably be stereotyped, she decides to use the situation to her advantage.
One of Janice’s important personal projects is her own physical reinvention. She is tired of being drab Miss Cameron and wants to be as glamorous as Lily, but has no idea where to begin.
Lily and Louise were chattering away about the new long skirts, the nuisance of having to buy longer slips to match, the satisfaction of being able to find colored fabrics after years of drab war dyes, and other such feminine trivia. They used a fashion vocabulary which was completely foreign to me.
Eventually Janice takes time off from the murder investigation to undergo a makeover, which is presented somewhat more realistically than one might expect. While Janice does go from “chunky” to “beautiful” in the course of a single afternoon, Sheridan emphasizes the cost of beauty, both in dollars and cents and the sheer effort of creating and maintaining it. Not only do we see the fabulous shopping spree, but also the bills and alterations that follow—not to mention the morning after, when the new hairstyle looks awful and Janice has no idea how to recreate it. Lily has a spectacular wardrobe, including slips that are slit up the side to accommodate her Chinese dresses, but she seems to spend half of her time caring for her clothes. Louise’s beauty routine ties up the bathroom for hours each day. That’s the club that Janice is now a member of. With great beauty comes great responsibility.
All of this focus on physical appearance has a dark side. While all the residents of the house have their idiosyncrasies, those Janice considers physically unattractive are portrayed much more negatively. Their foibles are not seen as lovable, but as grotesque. Meanwhile, a better-looking character who goes to shocking extremes to perfect her appearance is viewed as somewhat alarming, yet still endearing. With the Fifth Avenue beauty shops only a subway ride away (and apparently eager to work with indigent customers), Sheridan seems to feel that if a person is dowdy or overweight, it can only be due to some kind of moral failing. This is a fairly minor thread in the story, but it comes up just often enough to nag.
A more surprising theme is the legacy of the Great Depression. I didn’t expect this to be so present in a novel from the late 1940s, but the prosperity of the postwar years would have still seemed new and precarious at the time. Though most of the characters in The Chinese Chop were just kids during the Depression, they remain affected by the sudden financial reverses that devastated their families. This poverty is not only a traumatic memory, but in some cases changed the whole course of the characters’ lives, setting them on a path that would lead to a house of murder.
The Chinese Chop is a sophisticated and suspenseful mystery, a fitting introduction to the fascinating character of Lily Wu. Lily’s Chinese culture informs the mystery in surprising ways, especially during its explosive finale, which takes place during a Chinese New Year celebration. Most satisfyingly, it doesn’t end with a romantic clinch, but with two feisty, intelligent women finding friendship and family together. For Janice and Lily, their story is only beginning.
Kirkus Reviews, 1949
Feminine and flossy.
Documentary filmmaker Robin Lung researches the real-life women who may have inspired the character of Lily. The blog has not been updated since 2011, but it contains many fascinating facts and images of Hawaiian and Chinese-American life in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Chinese Chop is out of print, but there are plenty of Rue Morgue reprints floating around.