Although Janice Cameron refers to Lily Wu as an “Oriental” when she first greets her on the telephone, author Juanita Sheridan was merely using the common civilized parlance of the time (1949), politically incorrect though it may be today. In fact, there’s little that’s stereotypical about her portrait of Lily, and certainly nothing demeaning. If anything, both Sheridan and Janice Cameron tend to idealize the soft-spoken but self-assured young Chinese woman who can assume whatever demeanor best suits her purposes at the moment. Lily Wu is one of the earliest and best-realized Asian detectives in the genre. She is certainly not a female version of the movies’ Charlie Chan (the Chan of the books was much more fully realized), and if she appears “inscrutable” at times—well, she has her reasons, as the reader and Janice will soon learn. Lily is the spiritual godmother of Leslie Glass’s April Woo or S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and as original a character as you can hope to meet in mid-twentieth century mystery fiction.
But it would be a mistake to say that Lily was just the first realistic female Asian sleuth in the genre because, in many respects, Lily also represents a transition from the female sleuths of the 1930s to the more realistic women characters of the post-Marcia Muller period. There’s a lot more Sharon McCone in Lily than there is Jane Amanda Edwards.
Sheridan’s contemporary critics certainly felt that way. Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Boucher (for whom Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is named) commented: “Women make up such a large portion of the best writers and editors of detective stories that it’s a pity there aren’t more female detectives—women, that is, who star in their own right rather than merely serving as half of a Bright Young Couple.” Boucher was grateful for the female sleuths then in vogue, especially Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, F. Tennyson Jesse’s Solange Fontaine, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley, and Stuart Palmer’s Miss Hildegarde Withers.
But of all the female sleuths who had figuratively or actually picked up a magnifying glass up to that point, there was only one of them that Boucher would admit to being in love with—Lily Wu, “the exquisitely blended product of Eastern and Western cultures,” explaining that he respected her professional skills while delighting in her personal charms in the same way that characterized his “regard for Barbara Bel Geddes or Nanette Fabray or Bidù Sayão.” (If you’re under fifty and don’t understand the comparisons, this might be a good time to call your mother.)
Strictly speaking, Lily wasn’t the first female Asian sleuth to grace the pages of a detective novel, although she is generally credited as such. Mountain of Virtue, a beautiful and very intelligent Eurasian, aids a Mexican guerrilla fighter who solves mysteries in war-torn China starting in 1942 with Murder, Chop Chop (also reprinted by The Rue Morgue Press) and two subsequent books, An Inch of Time and The Nightwalkers by James Norman. Nor was Lily even the first Asian female sleuth created by Sheridan, who in 1943 collaborated with her family dentist, Dorothy Dudley (who got coauthor status in return for providing background information as well as—according to a family legend—braces for Sheridan’s young son) to produce What Dark Secret featuring an Asian reporter-cum-sleuth with an Anglo name, Angie Tudor, who resembles Lily in features and actions.
But Lily is the first fully Asian female detective to be the principal sleuth in a series, and it was a long time before there was to be another one. Although Janice Cameron is often referred to as the chief series character, the promising young novelist actually serves as Lily’s sidekick, narrating their adventures and making for a slightly more intelligent Watson than the original, although at times Lily looks at her “like a teacher regarding a deplorably retarded child.”
Lily herself was a composite of several of Sheridan’s Chinese friends, although she wrote that “she looks like an actress from the Golden Wall theater, who was one of the most ruthless human beings I have ever known.”
Lily appeared in four books, starting with the present volume in 1949 which was followed by The Kahuna Killer (1951), The Mamo Murders (1952) and The Waikiki Widow (1953), all of which have been reprinted by The Rue Morgue Press. Some critics consider The Waikiki Widow one of the best mystery novels of the immediate postwar period. Although The Chinese Chop takes place in New York City, most of the action in the other three books occurs after Janice and Lily move back to Hawaii.
Part of the reason for the bond between Janice and Lily when they meet in New York is that they had both lived in Hawaii, although Lily’s family home was located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Having grown up in Hawaii with its large Asian population, Janice is quite familiar with Chinese-Americans and also recognizes, as Lily is quick to see, that many mainland Americans might not be as eager as she to accept a young Chinese girl as a friend.
While much of the charm in The Chinese Chop lies in Sheridan’s portrait of postwar New York City, where women are struggling with the housing shortage, the difficulty in finding jobs now that the men had returned from war, and the new fashion in longer skirts, the series is at its best after Janice and Lily return to Hawaii, a place where Sheridan lived for seven years with at least one of her eight husbands.
Born Juanita Lorraine Light in Oklahoma on November 15, 1906, Sheridan claimed in a lengthy letter to her editor at the Doubleday, Doran Crime Club that she came by her knack for murder naturally since her maternal grandfather was killed by Pancho Villa in a holdup while her own father may possibly have been poisoned by a political rival.
After her father’s death, Sheridan and her mother hit the road, touring the American West. When she was on vacation from boarding school, Sheridan was often put by her mother on a train “with a tag around my neck which told my name and destination. I was never afraid, and never lost.”
That self-reliance came in handy years later when at the height of the Depression (ca. 1930) Sheridan, with an infant son in arms, found herself dropped off at the corner of 7th and Broadway in Los Angeles with only two suitcases and five cents to her name. She used the nickel to telephone a friend, who loaned her five dollars, and went out and got a job as a script girl for $20 a week. Her son Ross went to live with a rich Beverly Hills foster family and at about the age of six was legally adopted by his maternal grandmother. After the adoption, Sheridan, who had by then sold a couple of original screenplays, headed for Hawaii to begin her writing career.
Life wasn’t all that easy in Hawaii and once again she hit the pawnshops, although, as usual, “the typewriter was the last to go.” Sheridan said these tough times taught her that “it isn’t the smugly prosperous who offer to help. It’s the poor little guys who know what it’s like; it’s the landlady, worrying over her mortgage, who lets you sleep in her garage when you owe three months’ rent. It’s the tired counter man, seeing you order black coffee and soup when your neck bones look like coat hangers, who says, ‘Why don’t you take the roast beef, kid? It’s on the house.’ It’s the shabby girl behind you in line waiting for a job addressing envelopes at $3.50 per day, who catches you when your knees buckle and says, ‘Here’s a buck, honey. I can spare it. Gotta boy friend.’ ” No doubt these years of deprivation are why Sheridan filled her books with detailed descriptions of sumptuous surroundings and with characters like Louise in The Chinese Chop, who longed for luxury and admitted that the slogan of a popular ad campaign of the time, “because you like nice things,” was aimed at her.
Though Lily and Janice are not without money when the series begins, both had known hard times (Janice’s description of her early writing career echoes the author’s own experiences) and were familiar with the kinds of things a young woman had to put up with when she was on her own. “I once spent a hectic evening being chased around a suite of offices by a boss who was trying to prove that the best position for a woman was horizontal,” Sheridan wrote. “It was a difficult situation because I didn’t dare lose that job: I was behind on my rent.”
To those people, editors included, who thought her plots contained more than a touch of melodrama, Sheridan said she was only writing from life, 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...”
And she claimed to know at least one murderer who got away with it. “I know a woman,” she said, “who murdered her husband as surely as if she held the gun with which he shot himself. He was a warm-hearted guy with a great talent; what he created is still enjoyed by the movie-going public. She is a sweet-faced, triple-plated bitch. But he’s dead and she’s thriving.”
Sheridan never used much of the material she gleaned from real life, figuring that no one would believe it: “One of my most interesting friends in Hawaii was the madame of a ‘house.’ She looked like a schoolteacher, wore glasses and spoke New England. She had a record collection and a library. She was 26 and her annual net was higher than that of many high-voltage executives. I visited her place occasionally, and after the girls learned to trust me I heard some biographies which can’t be printed—no one would believe them.”
While in Hawaii, Sheridan began selling short stories. She also married architect Fritz Elliott, at which time she asked that Ross be allowed to join her in Honolulu. When the boy’s grandmother—and legal guardian—refused, Sheridan came to the mainland, snatched the boy while the older woman was out for a walk and sneaked the two of them on board the President Hoover with the steerage passengers, “down where they eat with chopsticks at one big table, the toilets are without doors, and there is no promenade deck.” Ross remembers that they embarked on the ship the very day his mother “kidnapped” him but Sheridan claims that she and the boy hid out in San Francisco for a week while the FBI hunted for them.
Sheridan sold several stories, including two mysteries with Asian characters, which won $500 prizes. Ross left Hawaii in May 1941 and went back to live with his grandmother. He was to see his mother again only five more times. Sheridan, with the manuscript to What Dark Secret in her hands, left Hawaii in November of the same year, just a couple of weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, landed in San Pedro and headed for New York by car for the next stage of her life.
At some point during this period she settled down (for the time being) in a housing cooperative on a 130-acre farm in Rockland County, New York where she and her current husband bathed in a stream and slept in a tent while helping to construct their house.
Her mystery novel writing career apparently ended, as it did for so many writers (women in particular), in 1953, perhaps because television was supplanting books, perhaps because World War II and Korea veterans were demanding books in the Mickey Spillane mode.
Sheridan returned to Hollywood briefly when one of her Lily Wu books was sold to television as the basis for the pilot of a mystery series set in Hawaii. She “left after a couple of sessions with the Hollywood movie types,” son Ross reported, because “she couldn’t stand the hypocrisy.”
Eventually Sheridan settled in Guadalajara, Mexico, with her last husband, Hugh Graham, and found work as a Spanish-English translator. A fall from a horse (she learned to ride while working as a polo horse exerciser in Hollywood in the 1930s) left her with a broken hip. The last time Ross saw her she was in extreme pain and would “lock herself in her room and mix painkillers and alcohol to try to ease the pain.”
He never saw her again. In May 1974 he received a postcard informing him of his mother’s death. Juanita Sheridan’s life was a colorful one, filled with many adventures and the same sort of melodrama she occasionally employed in her writing. She lived through some desperate times and, one hopes, many happy ones as well. Although she is little known today, she made a significant contribution to the mystery genre that ought not be forgotten.
Tom & Enid Schantz