Tuesday, April 12, 2005

White Tea by G. Miki Hayden

"White Tea" by G. Miki Hayden, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May 2005

This story is about two women in similar circumstances but on opposite sides of the Earth. The time period is apparently the late 1920s or early 1930s. The Communists have not yet taken China, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter has lost the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

In China a young girl is sold to her uncle to work on his tea plantation. She grows up and becomes the best tea grader her uncle has. Along the way she has fallen in love with another worker on the plantation. Her dreams of marriage to this young man are dashed when her uncle informs her that she is to be married to another older man of his choosing. She is desperate to avoid marrying this man, so she plots to murder her uncle. Knowing that he always chooses the choicest grade of tea for his own use, she poisons a fresh package of tea that she intends to bring to him.

In America there lives another woman, no longer so young. Anne has spent the best part of her life caring for her own uncle who was once an importer. Uncle Wilbur dies suddenly one night, and Anne's life changes forever. As the old man's sole heir, Anne can taste the first hints of the freedom that awaits her. A freedom she's never known.

But then the doctor asks her some strange questions. The police arrive and take away all the food in the house. Anne can't imagine what is going on. Eventually the police arrest Anne for the murder of her uncle.

The lives of these two women intertwine, and Ms. Hayden does an exceptional job of telling their stories. Ms. Hayden illuminates the characters of the women effortlessly. In addition, the "voice" of each of the women is distinct though not obtrusively so. There is a discrete difference in tone between the Chinese setting and the American one, but the transition is not jarring.

In short, another feather in Ms. Hayden's cap.