The Woman in the Camphor Trunk

Written by Jennifer Kincheloe
Review by Val Adolph

Los Angeles, 1908. Chinatown is seething with unrest. Tong wars erupt into instant violence. There exists a vast gulf between Chinese people and white people, bridged only by a few missionaries and the police. Girls from China are brought over to become prostitutes, imprisoned by the tongs until they are of no further use. Intruding into this secret world are Police Matron Anna Blanc and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Detective Joe Singer.

They find the body of a white woman in a camphor trunk in an apartment in Chinatown. Knowing the ill-feeling between Chinese and whites, they understand that this matter must be handled very carefully to avoid bloodshed. Together they follow the trail back to white missionaries, to two enslaved Chinese girls, to the wilderness outside Los Angeles, and back to face the violence of the tongs. Throughout, Anna and Joe spar verbally as they meet different characters from the world of Chinatown, hare off to chase suspects, and duck to avoid flying bullets.

This second book featuring the independent Anna Blanc develops further her turbulent relationship with Joe Singer and offers a hint of greater closeness—and additional turbulence—ahead. Their efforts to solve the mystery of the body in the camphor trunk lead to many twists and surprises and are complicated by the involvement of the enigmatic Mr. Jones. Throughout the story, Kincheloe describes well the hostility between whites and Chinese and the internecine warfare between the tongs.

In this book, the author has struggled to combine an important era in American history, a romance, and a mystery, but the combination does not blend together comfortably and believably. To lighten the mood we find Anna’s cheeky, pert dialogue and self-talk that, while amusing to our ears, does not quite fit the period.