The heart and soul of Juanita Sheridan’s The Chinese Chop lies in the relationship of the two main characters, Janice Cameron and Lily Wu. Janice has moved from her beloved Honolulu to the loneliness (and frigid winters) of New York City. Desperate to find a room, she meets Lily Wu. The two move into a house shared with a variety of susp…I mean New York artist types. There’s not much Janice knows about her new roomie except she conceals her emotions and motives with remarkable cunning. Lily is beautiful (seriously, this book is obsessed with her looks), blessed with mysterious means, and capable of unearthly patience as she searches for a secret something within her new dwelling–something for which one of those New York artists are willing to kill.
Yeah, Lily’s a sleuth. The justice she seeks is intensely personal and the methods she employs to obtain it are fun to discover as the two women happen upon a murder plot. As the bodies and clues pile up, the two women slowly bond over make-up, shared dislikes (the best human adhesive), and a desire to find out just who is killing their housemates.
If you require your mystery to function as a character study, I’m sure you’ll love TCC. It’s well-grounded in time and place (New York 1949), there’s a lot of detail about Chinese culture, and (best of all) the weaknesses of the cast play a big part in how they behave and die. The aforementioned bond between Lily and Janice grows throughout the novel is believable and intelligent ways. There are secrets in the past, terrifying doorknob turns in the dark, and sleuthing done under time constraints. It’s all fun stuff.
But, of course, I am an impossible crime fanatic. So…
Listen, there’s nothing wrong with a whodunit sans impossible crime. They can be quite charming as they eschew method, concentrating instead on the wonderful burden of an unknown killer hiding among the characters. Motive and anonymity are, after all, the only requirements of a murder mystery. (Except for inverted mysteries–which, suspenseful as they may be, are not mysteries.) There are lots of those wonderful moments when a character looks around the room and realizes one of those smiling faces belongs to a murderer.
It’s just that I get more excited about impossible murders. It’s an extra layer of dread. Lovecraft said the unknown is the greatest fear, and I’m inclined to agree with him. This isn’t rocket science. The more you don’t know, the more entertained you’ll be. Oh, well.
I certainly don’t mean to sound negative. Juanita Sheridan’s The Chinese Chop is a delightful read. It has sharply-drawn personalities, a competent plot, and plenty of delicious moments. It’s missing a locked door or two.