Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Golly, Molly: Runaway Brides and Tong Wars


When it comes to books, I rarely do “charming” or “cute”; that sort of unrelenting cheer (and overly-pat endings) just isn’t my style. Give me something with a little bite, a sharp edge, every single time.
Still, I’m willing to make the occasional exception, and Rhys Bowen’s “Molly Murphy” mystery series has been one of those. With a feisty protagonist--an independent young Irish immigrant who takes up the unlikely job of sleuthing so that she can put food on her table and a roof over her head, and an irresistible setting--New York City, circa the early 1900s, this has been a fun little series with much to recommend it.
All of that may be about to change, though, on the heels of Bowen’s tenth entry in Molly's ongoing saga, Bless the Bride...
* ~ * ~ *~ *
It’s 1903, and our intrepid redheaded detective is on the verge of getting married (hence the dreadfully saccharine title, which if not part of the series would have sent me running away as fast as possible) to her NYPD sweetie, fellow-Irishman Captain Daniel Sullivan.
Apparently the couple have reached an agreement; Molly will give up her (hard-won) job as a private detective once she becomes Mrs. Sullivan. In reality, though, it seems that Daniel expects her to have already given up her work, since he’s bundled her off to the countryside to his mother's home, where they’re presently engaged in the sewing of wedding garments and her trousseau (a task at which, as it happens, Molly is really quite dreadful).
Molly gets a momentary reprieve from the onerous stitchery tasks (and from Mrs. Sullivan’s little jibes at her future daughter-in-law) when a letter from good friends and neighbors, the delightfully-eccentric couple Sid and Gus, arrives. The women want to host a little pre-wedding bash for Molly, and to let her know that a job offer (something secret! urgent!) has just come in. Molly quickly hops on the next train back to the city.
The case isn’t at all what she was expecting, though, when what turns out to be the male secretary of her prospective client leads her through a warren of strange streets to an address in Chinatown, where wealthy businessman (and tong big-wig) Lee Sing Tai resides. Mr. Lee wants a “missing” (stolen? lost? misplaced?) jade necklace found, and insists that he needs a woman’s--Molly's--touch. Almost against her better judgment, Molly agrees... figuring that the money she’ll earn will make a nice little nest egg to bring to her newlywed life.
Things get a bit more complicated the next day, however, when Molly returns to Mr. Lee’s with news of her failure. It turns out the jade job was little more than a test; the real job is to find the woman who was wearing the necklace... Mr. Lee’s bride-to-be (recently purchased from her family and brought over from China), who is also “missing”.
Trying to do the honorable thing by sticking with the case--although Molly is, understandably, appalled by the whole concept of a bartered bride--she searches high and low for the missing girl. In the process, she encounters not only a culture whose ways are foreign to her, but also forms of shame and degradation she’s never seen... opium dens (with their nearly-comatose clientele), religious persecution (in the guise of overzealous missionaries), prejudice (from members of all the neighboring groups and from within the Chinese community itself), brothels filled with Chinese women (forced into the trade by the Chinese men who had secretly arranged their passage), the practice of importing “paper sons”, and tong wars.
She finds a few things she’s rather more familiar with, too... police corruption, protection rackets, and murder. It will take a healthy dose of good ole Irish luck, along with the skills she's learned in the business, if she wants to locate the missing woman and solve the murder (keeping innocent people from going to jail)--without Daniel’s knowledge--in time to make it to her wedding.
* ~ * ~ *~ *

There is, as usual, plenty of good stuff to be found in Bowen’s latest “Molly” tale. The historical details about Chinatown and New York City during this era are fascinating--particularly the cultural insights. The immigrant experience is always one I’m keen on reading about; in the U.S. we were all, at one time, immigrants (aside from the Native Americans, of course). The case itself is an interesting one, too, as it hinges on differences in perception and mores. 
Another element which has consistently been a plus is the depiction of the struggle for women’s rights. The bohemian Sid and Gus are ardent supporters of the suffrage movement, which allows them to provide a bit of perspective on that important topic, even as they inject a bit of comic relief via their crazy schemes, eclectic tastes, and wild parties.
Unfortunately, it's the heroine with whom I really feel letdown in Bless the Bride. Yes, Molly takes the case--even though she knows how displeased Daniel will be if he ever finds out (which, of course, he eventually does), but the fact that she does so is almost unbelievable, in light of how extraordinarily worried and even guilty she seems to feel about it.
Where is the spirited Molly who would’ve (in previous books) stood up to Daniel, never acquiescing to his request to turn her back on her job (and for “request”, read demand or expectation)? She says she doesn’t want to sit at home planning dinner parties and improving her stitching after the wedding... yet her protests seem like so much lip service, since she does nothing to ensure that Daniel hears her.
And then, there’s the wedding (which is hardly a spoiler, since you know all along it’s going to take place)... and the living arrangements... and the plight of a little girl from earlier books... and... well, it’s all just too much schmaltz for me, in the end. 
Color me disappointed with this one...



GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3 out of 5 Mousies

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