Sunday, November 19, 2017
The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe: Reading Room Review
To say that Anna Blanc is a woman ahead of her time in 1908 is the definition of understatement. Her bravery and commitment in being an independent woman is undeniable. Forsaking a life of leisure and riches as the daughter of a wealthy banker to pursue a career in police work defies her contemporaries’ understanding and resulted in her father disowning her. Introduced to Anna in The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, readers will be delighted to learn that she hasn’t changed her unconventional ways of pursuing criminals in this second book. While exasperating to her ex-boyfriend, Detective Joe Singer, Anna is as focused and dedicated an investigator as there is, even though that’s not supposed to be her job. Police matrons, as the scarce number of women employees in the department were called at that time, were limited to dealing with women prisoners and children. Of course, Anna is the exception to almost any rule of the day. Beautiful, smart, and resourceful make Anna a force to be reckoned with, but her compassion for victims is her stimulus for pursuing a case.
The Woman in the Camphor Trunk takes us into the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, a part of the city that is dangerous and perplexing to those who aren’t of that ethnic affiliation. The LA policemen assigned to the China Squad, including Joe Singer, walk a fine line between keeping the peace and working within the framework of Chinese culture. It’s no place for a woman, but women are a large part of this story, and being a woman hasn't yet deterred Anna. A white missionary woman is found dead in a trunk in the living quarters of a Chinese man, and the Chinese landlord’s wife won’t talk to the policemen, key word being men. So, with more than a little reluctance, Anna is sent with Detective Joe Silver to interview the Chinese woman. Anna’s toe is in, and after viewing the remains of the missionary in the trunk, she is intent on inserting her whole being into the investigation. An investigation that must be kept secret, as the repercussions to Chinatown and its residents would be bloody and relentless if knowledge that a white woman was discovered dead in a Chinese man’s room, and that the Chinese man was her lover. With the lover missing, solving the murder looks to be a long shot, but long shots are Anna’s favorite causes. She and Joe must navigate the warring factions of the two major tongs, or gangs, as well as a community whose distrust of white people is well ingrained. But, an unexpected development makes the case personal to Anna, and nothing will deter her from pursuing a resolution, not even Joe’s dating other women to find a wife. Anna does, however, begin to have some second thoughts about turning down Joe’s proposal to her.
Jennifer Kincheloe does so many things well and right in this book. When the beginning sentence to the book is “Anna Blanc was the most beautiful woman ever to barrel down Long Beach Strand with the severed head of a Chinese man,” the reader knows it’s going to be a remarkable story. The historical detail, from Anna’s clothes to police procedure to cultural prejudices, is well researched and flows seamlessly into the story. The humor that Kincheloe infuses into the life of Anna is a major point of enjoyment, starting with Anna’s living arrangements. Surrounded by her riches of belongings she brought with her when kicked out by her father, she is crammed into a low rent room, continually behind in her rent. The plots are clever and layered, with unexpected connections to the past.
I thank the publishers for providing an advanced reader’s copy for this book in a series that I find so much enjoyment in. Jennifer Kincheloe has proved herself an author to follow.