With February the month for flowers, candy, and valentines, it’s appropriate we take a look at author Juanita Sheridan’s fictional sleuth Ms. Lily Wu, and her cohort, novelist Janice Cameron. World famous mystery-fiction critic, editor, and author Anthony Boucher (eponym for the world’s leading mystery convention, Bouchercon) adored Sheridan’s fictional Lily Wu; dubbing her The Female Charlie Chan and admitted he was in love with her! He described her “the exquisitely blended product of Eastern and Western cultures,” explaining he respected her professional skills and delight in her personal charms. Sheridan wrote four novels in her Lily Wu mystery series: The Chinese Chop (1949), The Kahuna Killer (1951), The Mamo Murders (1952), and The Waikiki Widow (1953).
When I started this particular blog last summer, I thought it might be an original. However, a quick web search deflated that ego-ride revealing two wonderful blogs covering the first novel, The Chinese Chop (1949). Here they are at blog sites Dead Yesterday (August 2019) and Crossexaminingcrime (October 2019). Crossexaminingcrime also reviewed the last two Lily Wu novels, The Mamo Murders (1952), and The Waikiki Widow (1953). So with these stalwart studies already available, there’s certainly no need for me to repeat what’s already been expertly said. However, I could not find any reviews on the second novel in the series, The Kahuna Killer (1951), so I will attempt to stake that claim.
So, here we go…my first book review! (my conclusions and comments follow):
The Kahuna Killer (1951). This second book, in the Lily Wu series, finds Author Janice Cameron, returning to her childhood home, Honolulu, Hawaii, aboard the ocean liner Lurline. Her latest romance novel, set in the islands, has been adopted by Hollywood for a film release. It is rumored the film will be to the islands what Gone With the Wind had been to the south: love lost, and more important to Janice, reveal the true beauty of Hawaii, it’s native people, their culture and history. She will act as on-site consultant and is planning to retrieve her late father’s notes to reacquaint herself with any Hawaiiana she may have forgotten. While aboard ship she meets the handsome Tony, who is everything a gal could want in a man and seems overly interested in her plans. Also, on board is her foster-sister (and abettor in crime-solving), the self-assured 25-year old Chinese-American, Lily Wu, who claims she’s along to visit cousins on the island. Janice is staying with her father’s friends, the Averys, as her childhood home is now leased to tenants. Immediately she gets a kona feeling that somehow the Averys and their in-laws from Maui, the Bensons, have ulterior motives for inviting her to stay with them.
Even before arriving the mystery begins. Why is gorgeous hunk Tony constantly at her side, grilling her about her plans in Honolulu and ignore advances from more glamorous females on board (Janice is a realist?) And Lily’s presence on board is no coincidence. She did a little sleuthing and has suspicions about Tony’s intentions. Then, soon as Janice steps on shore one of the island lei-greeters calls her by her childhood Hawaiian name and gives warning before disappearing into the crowd:
Aloha, Kuloloa, Malama pono. Better you don’ go Avery place. Plenty Pilikai. (watch out, be careful: trouble)Chapter 1
When Janice arrives at the Avery household, the bag holding her writing notes is found missing. Later when retrieved she finds it’s been gone through. That same day, while everyone relaxes with cocktails along the shore, a bible (not the first time) is found floating in the water. Mrs. Benson, a religious zealot, claims the local Hawaiians staying on the property are to blame! In the Avery’s father’s will, the Hawaiians have been legally granted permission to stay on the property (along the shore in a remote village, Wainiha), providing they cause no trouble. But darker events begin. That first night, Janice hears drums beating in Wainiha; a place she loves and spent her youth swimming with the local children, fishing Hawaiian style with spear and net and enjoying the Hukilau and Luaus. She investigates to find an old sacred alter, heiau, has be rebuilt, those used by the ancient Kahuna (priest or witch doctor). Alone, feeling watched and afraid, she flees home only to find her dress stained with blood, where it has rubbed against the heiau.
In honor of the Hawaii Governor’s return to the islands (also on the Lurline), the Avery’s alluring neighbor, Faye Miller, hosts a traditional Hawaiian Luau. Faye, now a very wealthy widow, had been Janice’s college schoolmate until Janice, unintentionally, caused her dismissal from school and subsequent departure from the islands to avoid scandal. Janice, returning to the luau after fetching her swimsuit, comes across a private party room, where Malia, a servant girl at the Avery’s and accomplished hula dancer, is performing a very “private” Hula for exclusive guests only.
Malia was dancing. Not the old and esoteric hulas which had been performed earlier in the evening, nor even the modern humorous dance which had followed that little-appreciate performance. The music to which she moved was something I had never heard: wild music, with a weird melody played on some wind instrument to the beat of jungle drums. Malia’s dance interpreted that mood perfectly, in motions which were half savage, half calculatedly obscene, sensual to the point of viciousness. Malia’s lovely body thrust and shuddered, twisted in sly sinuousities and quivered invitation, accompanied by ever-moving arms and fingers, shoulders and feet. All the while her facial expression never changed: her big dark eyes stared widely, her mouth was fixed in a smile which held both solicitation and contempt.Chapter 6
During this covert Hula, in a fit of passion Malia is suddenly whisked away by one of the young village males, only to be found by Faye the next day–dead–floating in a remote Hawaiian swimming cove with her foot bound in the rocks. Was it a lumihai, a sacrificial drowning practiced by the feared kahuna anaanas, who dealt death? Later on, Mrs. Benson abruptly storms off alone to the village and while driving back to the Avery’s is killed–death by multiple centipede bite! Are the villagers practicing the old pagan rituals of the Alii (Chiefs) again? And if so, will they loose the property rights bequeathed them because of it?
While, Janice interacts among a host of quirky suspicious Malahini and native Hawaiian villagers, Lily Wu and her many cousins are investigating behind the scenes. First, they break into Tony’s room and discover his subliminal purpose and real interest in Janice’s doings. Then, they steal into the neighbor Faye’s estate, where they find and retrieve Janice father’s files. It seems Faye had arranged for them to be stolen from Janice’s family home. Finally, a revelation by Lily’s sleuthing cousins, along with documents uncovered in the files, helps Lily and Janice figure out what is really going on and why Malia and another old man in the village died. Were these deaths mysterious ancient blood-practices by the islanders, or something else? Without enough evidence they must play their bluff and a surprise ending brings justice to a head.
I found this an excellent mystery. A real page-turner, suspense filled and it does not tax the old gray cells too much! Especially well done is the way the author embeds the Hawaiian language, capitalizing on the mystique surrounding the ancient Polynesian culture. It draws one back to the days before plane travel, cell phones, and statehood for Hawaii; when America first heard the seductive music of the tropics over the airwaves on the radio broadcast Hawaii Calls (1935-’75.) I would, however, recommend reading the first Lily Wu novel The Chinese Chop, beforehand. Kahuna is certainly a stand alone and the author aptly explains the relationship between Lily Wu and Janice Cameron. However, that first novel digs much deeper into the background between these two characters, both from Hawaii, and the bond that sets their relationship. Here, Lily Wu appears more in spurts along with her multitude of Chinese “irregulars” (to borrow from the Holmes vernacular), the Chun family. It almost seems the author gives Lily a sabbatical here, relegating her more to a secondary (deuteragonist) level until the last quarter of the novel. Janice takes center stage through most of this read with the novel written first person in her voice (as all are.)
Something I did not find mentioned elsewhere: two Juanita Sheridan short stories! First, There are no Snakes in Hawaii! This Sheridan-short was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [Vol 24, No. 4, #134, October 1954, Mercury Publications]; then, later in the USA within the anthology The Lethal Sex (A Mystery Writers of America Classic Anthology Book 4), 1959. The other short, A Lei for Aloha, we find inside The Saint Mystery Magazine [Vol 16, No. 2, June 1962, Fiction Publishing Co.], though first published in a UK edition of The Saint magazine, 1961, [Atlas Publishing & Distribution Co. Ltd.] I have not read either title “yet,” but I found old copies online and they’re on the way. Also, that first title There are no snakes in Hawaii is an exact phrase right out of The Kahuna Killer.
And here an epiphany (for me)–an obvious precursor to the “Lily Wu” novels, What Dark Secret (1943)! This stand alone novel Sheridan co-authored with Dorothy Dudley, features a VERY similar Asian-female sleuth: one “Angie Tudor!” Click on the highlighted title to find an in-depth review by blog site JetblackDragonfly. Those familiar with the series will most likely notice Lily Wu and Angie Tudor seem to have much in common! The obvious inference: Juanita Sheridan reinvented “Angie Tudor” as “Lily Wu” for her ensuing four book series. Who knows, maybe someday some great mystery publisher will find it fitting to reprint all Juanita Sheridan works inside one anthology! One can dream, yes?
A FINAL NOTE: The second in the Lily Wu series, The Waikiki Widow (1953), was made into the debut episodes for the TV series Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963), titled “Malahini Holiday” (Season 1, Episode 1, October 7, 1959). The 5-year series co-starred another sleuth of sorts: Robert Conrad…alias government agent James West of The Wild Wild West.)