No Award reviews: The Wells & Wong Mysteries by Robin Stevens

Liz made Steph read “Wells and Wong,” a series of books featuring young lady detectives in an English boarding school.

Liz:

Technically, what I said was, “These books exist, the heroine is Chinese, I think they’re quite good, you might like them.” I wasn’t exactly standing over Stephanie with a pile of books and a gun.

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

Steph:

I was skeptical, but I’ve been won over. Mostly? Mostly.

Cover of the UK edition of the first book.
UK edition

Liz:

The Wells & Wong Mysteries are middle-grade mysteries that essentially take the settings and situations of popular fiction from the 1930s and go, “Yes, but what if the brilliant detectives were teenage girls? What if the narrator was a young woman from Hong Kong? What if her partner was dangerously genre-savvy? What if they prioritised morning tea and recognised the inherent value of baked goods?”

They might as well have just titled it, A Series Tailored Specifically To Liz’s Interests.

Steph:

Obviously I was only here for the young woman from Hong Kong, because 1930s popular fiction is not really my jam (hence why Liz reviews Enid Blyton on her own). But my jam is definitely representations of Chinese women.

Liz:

Excuse me, Enid is ’40s-’50s. And, in fact, her school stories are rather toned down in some respects, compared to those of earlier decades. Which is to say, I should have expected all the lesbians.

Steph:

An hour or so into reading the first book, Murder Most Unladylike, I started making notes – I was on a plane, so sadly couldn’t pepper Liz with text messages, as is my usual habit when I read a book. I was VERY surprised by the lesbian insinuations. What an unexpected delight!

US edition -- with a different title and a more garish illustration.
The US edition.

Liz:

Girls boarding school novels of the era tended to be pretty heavy on the queer subtext. The Wells & Wong Mysteries just brings it closer to the surface.

(The 20s and 30s were a fairly good time to be a queer woman, although increasingly less so as Fascism came into vogue. Dorothy L Sayers, for example, includes several lesbians in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and although they start out with the Neurotic And Possessive And Destructive Woman Who Just Needs A Man stereotype, by Strong Poison (1930), they’ve evolved into witty, delightful misandrists in happy relationships. This was an era of relative queer visibility for women — Dietrich cross-dressed on screen, songs like “The Lavender Song” and “When the Special Girlfriend” alluded to relationships between women, often not all that subtly.)

(It might have been similar for men, I literally have no idea.)

Steph:

Okay it was a surprise to me!

Less of a surprise was the racism. No slander against Robin Stevens, who did a great job of making Hazel a little Chinese fish out of water — there was some period-appropriate racism that was subtle and at times heavy, but in no way did it feel like a validation of racism because it was ‘of the times.’

Yes, racism in ’30s England was gross and obvious (still is), but Hazel’s discomfort as the POV character makes it uncomfortable for the reader, too, and I appreciate that as a way of being period realistic but also not condoning it.

Not realistic: when Hazel thinks longingly of eating moon cakes for bun break during bun break. Nobody wants to eat moon cakes the same way one eats eclairs. Nobody.

Liz:

I’ll take your word for that.

Steph:

I can probably make gluten free moon cakes to which I can subject you.

Liz:

Oh, I’ve had moon cakes, they just didn’t make much of an impression. I think they were very heavy? They did not taste like the moon.

The one point in the first three books (so far) where the period racism didn’t feel accurate to me was in the third book, First Class Murder, where Daisy is surprised by the existence of anti-Semitism in general and its ties to Fascism in particular. I mean, she’s a product of the English upperclass, and she’s read Sayers. That felt like a reach to me, especially since she has certainly internalised a lot of racist ideas about Chinese people.

Cover of Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers
Daisy has read Whose Body?, which is a bit scandalous since there’s the whole bit about how they know the (nude) deceased is Jewish.

I can’t say Daisy is someone I’d particularly want as a friend — maybe it’s just that I read multiple books about BFFs-that-turned-toxic in 2015, but Daisy comes with a whole lot of red flags — but I think she’s a brilliant character. There’s a dash of the sociopath!Sherlock Holmes characterisation about her, which I normally find tedious, but everything is more interesting when teenage girls are involved.

Steph:

I really struggle with Daisy as a character, because of her internalised racism and also the way she is not very nice to Hazel and Hazel mostly lets her be, and I also can’t stand sociopath!Sherlock Holmes, so *shrug emoji*

Liz:

Daisy is all red flags all over, and as much as she’s important to Hazel now, I like to imagine them going their separate ways after school. But I don’t require all fictional relationships to be 100% healthy, even between BFFs.

I do love that, even though they are English aristocrats of the 1930s, Daisy’s family is dysfunctional in really familiar ways. And a lot of Daisy’s behaviour is the natural outcome of that situation.

A rather racist cover for Murder on the Orient Express, depicting an Asian woman in a silk robe staring down at a corpse.
Hazel would have a lot to say about this cover. Just imagine what Stephanie would say, but with less swearing.

Daisy is a female Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter, for those of you who haven’t encountered Dorothy L Sayers, is a fictional detective of the interwar era, the younger son of a duke with a penchant for solving mysteries. Like Daisy, he is immensely intelligent, but presents himself as a bit of a dim bulb, a harmless, prattling, useless aristocrat.

In Lord Peter’s case, it’s partially a consequence of the PTSD he developed in the Great War; in Daisy’s case, it’s because she knows that no one likes highly intelligent women, and worse, no one takes them seriously — well, if she’s not going to be taken seriously, she’s going to decide how and why. (Lord Peter is much kinder to his friends than Daisy.)

(For a completely different but equally marvellous middle-grade take on Lord Peter Wimsey, see R J Anderson’s A Pocketful of Murder.)

Lord Peter is all over these books — which is to say, Daisy’s Uncle Felix, a “small, blond man with a monocle” and close involvement with both Scotland Yard and British intelligence, basically is Lord Peter, sans interminable quotations because for some reason long passages in untranslated French don’t go down well in modern fiction for young readers. The Sayers estate is notoriously unpleasant towards anyone who borrows their detective for a cameo, but I know who Felix is. And I have some ideas about his occasional offsider, an extremely tall blonde lady of uncertain marital status.  (Actually, I can’t remember if that character is in fact very tall, but my brain made the connection and won’t let it go, like my cat when he’s got someone’s arm in his jaws.)

But, back to Hazel — the other things I love about her are that she’s overweight and hates sport. Every time a small fat girl rejects British sporting culture in a boarding school novel, the small part of my soul that still feels sorry for Gwendoline Mary Lacy cheers.

Where would you like to see the series go in future books?

Steph:

More awesomeness from Hazel. Now that her dad accepts, and Daisy’s family still doesn’t, does that impact their detectiveing?

Liz:

Excellent question!

Since the upcoming fourth book takes us back to the boarding school setting, which would have been my first wish, I hope the fifth book takes Daisy and Hazel to Hong Kong. I’d like to see Daisy be the fish out of water for the change, and having spent a book with Hazel’s Anglophile Old Etonian father, I’d like to get to know her mother.

The books:

  • Murder Most Unladylike
  • Arsenic for Tea
  • First Class Murder
  • Jolly Foul Play (out March 2016)

The first two books have been released in the US, but with different titles:

  • Murder is Bad Manners
  • Poison is Not Polite

(Oh, America.)

And there is a novella? Novelette? There’s a mini-mystery titled The Case of the Blue Violet which I am going to put in my face as soon as I’m done with this post. IT’S NARRATED BY DAISY, I’M SO EXCITED.

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