Friday, November 16, 2018

Murder by the Dozen

In the mid-1930s Hugh Wiley (1884-1968) wrote twelve short stories featuring Chinese-American detective James Lee Wong. The stories were later collected as Murder by the Dozen. From 1938 to 1940 Monogram Pictures made six very popular Mr Wong B-movies, the first five starring Boris Karloff as Mr Wong.

To be honest there’s not a huge amount in common between Wiley’s Mr Wong and the character featured in the movies. Both are western-educated but Wiley’s Mr Wong was educated at Yale while the movie version was English-educated. Wiley’s version works for the U.S. Treasury Department and has a slightly hardboiled air while the movie version is a rather genteel and cultured private detective.

In the movies the detective is always referred to as Mr Wong. In the short stories James Lee Wong is more often referred to simply as James Lee or Mr Lee.

Long Chance concerns an attempt to buy American bombing planes for the Chinese government, in a manner that is perhaps not entirely open and legal.

Ten Bells deals with murder in the movies. This particular movie includes a duelling scene but one of the pistols is loaded with live ammunition rather than blanks, with fatal consequences. The property man is a very obvious suspect, with a strong motive and ample opportunity. A fairly entertaining story.

A Ray of Light involves diamonds, which may or may not be real. There’s some interesting stuff about methods of telling real diamonds from fake. A reasonably good story.

The Bell from China is a bell from the Chou dynasty which has been donated to the Art League. Mr James Lee Wong is asked to translate the inscription on the bell, which proves to be a challenging task. The results are not those that were anticipated. And there’s more going on here than antiquarianism. A very good story.

In The Feast of Kali wealthy landowner Denman Hale decides it is time to deal with Sang Hop, who runs a floating brothel, gambling hell and opium den. Hale is tired of seeing his Indian and Chinese workers corrupted by Sang Hop. Sang Hop gets wind of Denman Hale’s plans and strikes first. Fortunately his loyal servant Chew Lim realises that there is only way to save his master - he must contact Mr James Lee.

Lee knows he has to move fast. He also knows he’s dealing with all manner of exotic evil - such as worshippers of Kali who practise various bloodthirsty rites. This is not by an means a fair-play detective story but Lee does do some actual detecting by means of some unusual clues. A very entertaining story.

Jaybird’s Chance takes Lee to the Payboy gold mine where there’s been a robbery. An elderly Chinese is the chief suspect. The sheriff has been giving him the third degree but so far has failed to get a confession. James Lee is not surprised by his failure. Lee manages to get in some good trout fishing and some good poker with the guys at the mine. Both poker and trout will prove to be helpful in solving the case. This is slightly more hardboiled than most of the James Lee stories but it’s still quite clever. It turns out that if you’re a detective it helps if you understand bluejays.  A very good story.

No Witnesses takes James Lee into the mountains for a well-earned vacation. But he discovers that crime will follow a detective wherever he goes. It all starts when a wealthy businessman decides he’d like to settle down in the picturesque little Sky Ridge community. What he’d really like to do is to buy a house there. A fine idea, but carrying round two thousand dollars in cash to make the purchase is perhaps less of a good idea.

James Lee gets the vital clue in this case from a Chinese cook at the local hotel. In fact Lee solves many of his cases with help from members of the Chinese community. Another fairly decent story.

Three Words is the story of the murder of a scholar. He may have been murdered for the sake of a treasure, but there are many different kinds of treasures. Things might have been simpler if only doctors took more care with their handwriting and their Latin. A fairly clever story, especially if you like solutions that hinge on literary scholarship.

Scorned Woman is one of several stories that explore the seedy but glamorous side of Chinatown including the various rackets - gambling, narcotics, white slavery etc. This sort of thing was extremely popular with American consumers of popular culture at this time. In this tale money is being raised for the Chinese government in Nanking by the sale of opium. James Lee Wong has to sort this out whilst also rescuing an American girl who has shown an excessive curiosity in the exotic Chinatown underworld and he also has a funeral to attend, a funeral in which the widow’s behaviour proves to be interesting and enlightening. One of the best stories in the collection.

Seven of Spades is pure pulp fun. A G-Man has been killed in Arizona. He had picked up the trail of notorious gunman Dutch Flint. The local sheriff has arrested the wrong man but James Lee is used to having to deal with less-than-efficient local lawmen. He really needs lots of backup on this case but there isn’t time so he’s going to have to rely on his luck, his nerve and his skill with a gun. Not exactly high art but very enjoyable.

The Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb is a case that could plunge the world into war. A U.S. senator has bought some documents and they’re dynamite and they’re going to be published nation-wide and then nothing will be able to stop the inevitable slide to war. Nothing can stop this from happening, except for Treasury Agent James Lee Wong. Lots of breathless excitement in this story and it works pretty well.

Medium Well Done is the highlight of the collection. It’s the old spook racket. Young Helen King is a very rich woman after her father’s death but she’s easy prey to a phoney medium. Luckily she has a devoted Chinese servant in Wong Sung and even more fortunately Wong Sung is acquainted with Mr James Lee of the Treasury Department. This is a classic pulp tale done with style and Wong Sung gives the story a truly delightful finish.

James Lee Wong is in the Charlie Chan mould, a dedicated professional and a man of high moral qualities. He’s Charlie Chan with more of a pulp edge, although he’s a less complex and less well-developed character. Since he’s a Treasury agent he gets to deal with crimes that often go beyond the straightforward cases that a policeman would deal with.

These are somewhat pulpy and semi-hardboiled tales rather than puzzle-plot mysteries but if you accept them for what they are they’re quite good fun.

There is some gentle humour, much of it in the form of the staggering number of cryptic  old Chinese proverbs which Lee and every other Chinese character in the stories are able to quote.

Murder by the Dozen is highly recommended.

My review of the Mr Wong movie Mr Wong in Chinatown might also be of interest.

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