Death at Chinatown
An Emily Cabot Mystery
by Frances McNamara
Death at Chinatown by Frances McNamara is a good mix of mystery and history. It is a literary smoothie providing a sense of Chicago’s original Chinatown, politics with similarities to those of today, charges of murder against the wrong person, medical research, Western versus Eastern Medicine, immigration problems, and the struggles of women to balance family and work.
The book is the fifth in Frances McNamara’s “Emily Cabot” mystery series. During the summer of 1896, amateur sleuth Emily Cabot met two young Chinese women who had recently received medical degrees. One is accused of poisoning a Chinese herbalist, and Emily quickly finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation.
The author captures the flavor of the late 1800s in Chicago, the physical as well as the social, with a charming, period-authentic style that is a refreshing break from the nonstop violence in much of today’s fiction. The story references a number of real people, including Dr. Mary Snow and Dr. Ida Kahn, the primary Chinese characters, as well as events in the forefront of community concerns at the time. The “Afterword” explaining McNamara’s research and the liberties taken on behalf of the fictional mystery is as interesting as the book.
Emily’s husband, Dr. Stephen Chapman, invited her to meet the two Chinese women at a surgical demonstration at which he was assisting. An early version of the Roentgen-ray was to be used to locate and remove bullets still inside a patient. The surgeon, Dr. Erickson, was known not to favor women in medicine. Suffering deeply from the recent death of his wife, he made a surprise move: He invited Dr. Mary Snow to do the procedure. He may have thought she would be afraid and refuse. However, she accepted the challenge and performed successfully.
The following day, while Mary and Ida were having tea with Emily, the Chicago police charged in and arrested Dr. Mary Snow for murder. A Chinese herbalist whose shop she had patronized had been poisoned. Someone had seen her there shortly before he died and accused her of killing him. Detective Whitbread, who made the arrest was a friend of Emily’s, with whom she had worked on department research projects, so her husband and the doctor’s friends urged her to become involved, help get Dr. Snow out of jail and find the real murderer.
In addition to her work with the police, Emily had a lectureship with the University of Chicago, to which she was expected to return. She had stopped to have a family and recently had been devoting all her time to her fifteen-month-old son and infant baby girl. Although she had a young woman available to help with the children, Emily seemed to have an almost irrational feeling of guilt or worry about being away from them for any length of time, so much so that she did not want to resume her work with the police. Although she had promised to return to the University, she had serious doubts about whether she would do that. Major pressure from her husband and others, plus the fact that Dr. Snow was arrested while Emily’s guest, finally moved her to investigate and find the truth.
In real life, Frances McNamara is a librarian at the University of Chicago, and her father served as Police Commissioner of Boston for ten years. She has built-in resources for crafting her historical mysteries, and she puts them to good use in Death at Chinatown.
It is interesting that in a time when bias against women having careers was much greater than now, Emily Cabot had achieved that. Viewed from today, her concern about returning to her work seemed a bit excessive but not a problem. On another note, if a surgeon today turned over the demonstration of a new technique on a patient to a newly minted doctor with no advance arrangement to do so, the tweets would fly.
Death at Chinatown by Frances McNamara is an enjoyable and educational read. The author is working on the sixth Emily Cabot mystery, Death at the Paris Exposition.
August 2014, Allium Press
$14.99, paperback, 226 pages
—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas