Death at Chinatown

Written by Frances McNamara
Review by Jane Steen

The fifth in the Emily Cabot mystery series sees Emily, now married and the mother of small children, coping with a seemingly uncaring husband and her anxieties about motherhood and the academic career she has abandoned. Her meeting with two young Chinese women who sacrificed their own marriageability in order to study medicine in Chicago disturbs her, but when one of them is accused of murder, Emily must weigh her maternal duties against her moral obligation to help them.

Although I sometimes found the writing a little stilted, my interest was piqued by the depiction of turn-of-the-century Chicago’s Chinese community. McNamara draws on real personalities and political situations to elaborate her plot—in my opinion she succeeds better at this with the male characters Hip Lung and Wong Chin Foo than with the two young women, who never took on much life for me although their working environment, the women and children’s hospital, is vividly rendered.

What I found most interesting about this novel was the way McNamara uses Emily’s view of what, in those pre-global-village days, was a very alien world to parallel her heroine’s dilemma in finding herself at odds with her own environment. It’s a tension that many new mothers will find familiar: Emily is caught between the desire to be what in her eyes is the perfect mother and the feeling that she has lost something of herself. In Chinatown her inability to speak Chinese creates what she describes as a veil between her and those most directly involved in the murder investigation—this disconnect parallels her frustrated impression that she is no longer speaking the same language as her husband and university mentors.