I've read a lot of "Yellow Peril" thrillers in my day with the Fu Manchu saga leading the list but I don't think I've come across a more humanistically offensive murder mystery than Comets Have Long Tails (1938). First off I hadn't a clue what the hell the title meant but when I learned within the first two chapters that the victim is a Chinese woman (dubbed White Flower!) cast in the role of exotic and amoral villainess I thought for sure I was going to learn of some obscure Confucian snippet that led to the title. I was sort of right, but we don't really learn of the true meaning of that odd metaphor until the final pages of the last chapter. Until then we must be affronted with the despicable life of the murder victim who certainly had it coming to her and yet at the same time discovering that this Chinese woman is one of the worst stereotypes of the "evil Oriental", and an "exotic female evil Oriental" at that, in all of Golden Age crime fiction. I couldn't wash away the bad taste in my mouth with each new revelation and racial slur Johnston felt it necessary to use.
Our super sleuths on the case are Noah Bradshaw and Tony Craig, rival reporters from two different newspapers. Craig's editor is so impressed with the reporters' detective skills he asks why he is a cub reporter rather than a cop. Craig, ever the wisecracker, replies, "Feet aren't flat enough." This is another book along the lines of Daniel Mainwaring's series (writing as Geoffrey Homes) where reporters are more observant, more astute, and generally better at everything than the police. Even D.A. Teasdale jibes the Chief of Police, "If the newspapers keep on there won't be any need for a detective bureau. Why don't you try training journalists instead of Sherlock Holmeses?" The somewhat overly complicated plot treats us to Bradshaw's expertise in the Chinese language and its various dialects (he had worked there for several years) and the fact that Tony at one time dated White Flower and was in love her.
Bradshaw and Craig are tasked with aiding the police and in one case challenged to actually solve the murder of White Flower, the adopted ward of Beulah and Roger Allison. White Flower is found hidden behind a hedge in a park wearing only black pajamas and strangled with a dog leash . It's a sordid crime perfectly suited as tabloid fodder. Add to that the young woman is Chinese whose looks are constantly described as "almond eyed" and "exotic" and you know that the story is headed for lurid and murky waters. Is it because she's Chinese that she will turn out to be a truly nasty young woman? A thieving blackmailer of the worst sort, a seducer of young men tempting them with her body and her charm, and plotting the worst sort of revenge. Is she just a symbol of exotic decadence or is there something more insidious at the heart of the book? I don't know what to make of it all.
Here's some choice writing for you to mull over:
Anything that peps me up is a nice fresh murder now and then. And if it had to be anybody I'm glad it wasn't someone who would be a loss to the community. Like a husband and father. Now this Chinese gal--"
"Why was the girl bumped off if not to get possession of the jade bracelet?"
"Why anything," Lt. Hogan demanded, "when it come to the yellow race? Revenge, some ancient grudge dating back to God knows when -- the first century, or dynasty, or whatever it's called in China. [...] When a Chink gets his mad up it's handed down from generation to generation."
The girl would play with him, drain his manhood, drive him insane with jealousy, but she would not marry him. No. She was playing with bigger fish. She would not marry [him]... But she would ruin him.
He was only a reporter. But he had eyes. And ears. And -- what was it [his editor] had said of him? -- a nose for crime. Well, this crime was beginning to smell unpleasantly Chinese.
It was the oriental equivalent of "Get the hell out of here."
It was pure "Pekingese", which to the Chinese language is what true "Parisian" is to the French. (On closer reading that's really just an example of snobbery.)
Oh, how about this one? A rare case of a racist joke:
"Wong not know. Not sure. White man all lookee like same man."
There is another victim. Guess what? He's Chinese. Guess what happens to him? Strangling is not enough to dispatch him. He's also mutilated and tortured in a grotesque manner. The book is not only drowning in Chinese stereotypes and xenophobia. Bigotry is liberally sprinkled on all the non-whites in the cast. There are stereotyped Jews and a black servant character. She is introduced as "a large black woman of the mammy type" and then referred to as "the Negress" and "the servant." But she is never given a name. Of course she speaks in an "Amos & Andy" style comic dialect. It's all way too much. And when it's laid on this thick can it all really be satire? I'm not so sure.
At one point in the novel a character says to himself, "What in hell is this anyway? A murder investigation or a Mickey Mouse cartoon?" No comment.
But here's something I started to do just to put the book into less offensive and modern context. I recast White Flower as an Islamic girl or a Latino girl or any other non-white and I started looking at all of the anti-Chinese remarks and all the racial slurs as if she were one of the many maligned and ostracized "minorities". In fact I made her all of them at once. Suddenly the book was like something that was out of the front page headlines of the past five years. Because really nothing changes when it comes to bigots finding "the other" and ostracizing them, casting them in the roles of monsters or freaks or infidels or sinners or what have you in order to make them less human, less worthy. Just lesser than anyone. Perhaps Johnston was only holding a mirror up to us and showing us the ugly truth. That, at least, is my hope to help explain why she wrote what amounts to a very ugly detective story.
Madeleine Johnston wrote only two detective novels and much to my surprise Coachwhip Publications has reprinted both of them in an omnibus edition entitled Bradshaw Investigates. Included with Johnson's debut is Death Casts a Lure, a sequel of sorts, both featuring --as the title implies-- Noah Bradshaw as the reporter/sleuth. Despite this unusual choice in a vintage murder mystery reprint I'm not sure I'm interested in further exploring Johnston's world.