Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Inscrutable? The Chinese Puzzle (1957), by Miles Burton

"There seems to be an unusual rate of mortality among the Chinese community, Mr. Lapworth?"

"There is," Lapworth replied as they reentered the mortuary.  "Two of them within little over a week."

Merrion wondered how [Inspector] Arnold or, for that matter, any other of the police concerned, would cope with the situation.  To them, the Chinese mentality must be completely bewildering. They might have been called to some remote planet, with a civilization different in every possible way from one to which they were accustomed.  This was no question of a battle of wits, in which skillful cross-questioning might elicit the truth. Only by entering into the minds of those involved would it be possible to discover what had actually happened.

                                                                       --Miles Burton, The Chinese Puzzle (1957)

As discussed here recently, blogger Noah Stewart a few days ago denounced John Street's 1957 "Miles Burton" novel The Chinese Puzzle for "disgraceful attitudes and comments" concerning Chinese people.  Yet critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor deemed The Chinese Puzzle a novel with which "one can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening" and more recently R. E. Faust, an astute reader of John Street and other so-called "Humdrum" mystery writers, asserted that the novel "does not descend into just displaying racial stereotypes," though he conceded that the portrayal of uneducated Chinese laborers [often called "coolies"] "may seem outdated to some modern readers."

More recently Crich70, a Goodreads reviewer, wrote that The Chinese Puzzle "was an interesting little murder mystery.  Though it wasn't what we now call PC as the Chinese characters are more stereotypical than what would be written today....Still the plot did hang together well."

John Street happened to be interested in business and labor issues, much more so, I believe, than the typical Golden Age mystery writer.  Though he came of a landed gentry and military background, he had a great interest in technology, which we see reflected in his detective novels, particularly those written under his punning "John Rhode" pseudonym.  Street was an artillery officer in the First World War (later serving in British intelligence) and before the war he was employed as the chief electrical engineer in a power company.

A hugely prolific author, Street had a highly disciplined writing schedule.  He would write in the morning, depart for the local pub at noon and return home a couple of hours later to write some more. Pubs are a common feature of Street's novels and the author amazed his Detection Club colleagues, like his great friend John Dickson Carr, with his ability to consume huge amounts of beer without showing any outward effect (aside from his steadily expanding girth; by the 1930s he had lost his slim wartime figure).

Street's house in Kent, where he and John Dickson Carr
worked on the novel Fatal Descent
An aspect of Street's personality as manifested in his novels that I found particularly interesting was the interest evinced in work. Street writes about businessmen, tradesmen, mechanics, farmers and farmer hands with authority. One of his detective novels, Death in the Hop Fields, followed George Orwell by looking at hops pickers in Kent, a county where Street lived for some years.

Reflecting his intelligence background, in the 1920s Street wrote extensively about European politics, showing a particular interest in affairs in France (he was conversant in French and translated several works from French to English) and Central Europe (for example, he wrote an admiring biography of Czechoslovakian statesman Tomas Masaryk).  He and his companion, Eileen Street, were great world travelers, though I don't know whether the couple ever visited China.  But the point is, Street, despite his reputation as a "Humdrum" mystery writer, was actually something of a cosmopolitan man, interested in a wide variety of subjects, and he had since he was a child wanted to know how things worked.

By the time Street got around to writing The Chinese Puzzle, he was 73 years old and near the end of his mystery writing career.  (His last detective novel appeared in 1961, and he died three years later.)  Does it reflect poorly on the man, or is it merely some acceptable light entertainment as Barzun, Taylor and Faust have contended?

First, I want to correct one impression people might have gotten from Noah's scathing review.  This is not a "Yellow Peril" novel, like the popular Fu Manchu crime thrillers by Sax Rohmer.  Noah makes reference, generally, to books of this ilk depicting beautiful white girls menaced by Asian "devils." Nothing of the sort happens in The Chinese Puzzle.  No white people are menaced, whether female or male, beautiful or, well, frumpy. (Though Street includes a briefly appearing character named "Mr. Nayland," I'm guessing an allusion to Rohmer's hero Nayland Smith.  In Puzzle Mr. Nayland, a crotchety farmer who owns the wood where the two dead Chinese men are found, visits the police demanding compensation for damage done to his fence by thrill-seeking sightseers.)

I want to emphasize this: the novel is about the investigation into the deaths of two Chinese men.  The authorities in the novel do not indifferently wash their hands of the affair and say this is of no concern to them because the dead men are Chinese "coolies"; they try to get to the bottom of the deaths and punish those who are guilty. "It's all very well for you and him to talk of [exculpatory reasons for the crimes]," declares stalwart series policeman Inspector Arnold near the end of the novel, before countering bluntly that "murder is murder."

The novel opens with the apparent attack, at half-Chinese "Spotty" Jim Whampoa's London boarding house, of one Chinese man on another, a carpenter named How Ming ("a good man at his trade").

The assailant claims through an interpreter ("a perfectly respectable Chinese tradesman from Limehouse") that he is one Ah Lock, from the seaside city of Cranport, but it comes to appear that he is not in fact Ah Lock after all. What has become of Ah Lock?

Although in his original appearance in a Miles Burton novel Inspector Arnold was conversant in German and was a relatively sophisticated indivudal, he soon, let us say, devolved and came to depend heavily on the amateur assistance of his clever friend Desmond Merrion (formerly of Admiralty Intelligence), who resides at The Hall at the quaint village of High Eldersham (actually quaint ain't the word for it--see Merrion's debut novel, The Secret of High Eldersham) and also has rooms in London, where he is faithfully attended by his loyal "man," Newport.

In The Chinese Puzzle Arnold again comes to Merrion for help, this time in a case concerning Chinese residents in England, inscrutable in his eyes:

"Didn't you tell me once that you knew something about the Chinese and their ways?" asks Arnold, to which Merrion replies: "....I hope you didn't assume from what I said that I was an expert.  I can't claim to be an Old China Hand, though I have spent a little time both in Hong Kong and Shanghai."

Despite this momentary outburst of modesty, Merrion soon is rather smugly discoursing to Arnold on Chinese ways, especially the ways of "uneducated Chinese."

Arnold is informed that they are superstitious and have little conception of time, and that their minds do not work, as those of Westerners ostensibly do, on "straight and logical lines." You get the point: a lot of patronizing sweeping generalities, from a man who "spent a little time both in Hong Kong and Shanghai."

Also expressed in the novel is the common refrain that "average" Europeans have trouble distinguishing one Chinese person from another.  Margery Allingham based a rather brilliant short story, "The Same to Us," on this notion.

I think this no question is a weakness to the novel. Aside from questions of the distastefulness, there is the simple fact that though the novel hinges on the death of two Chinese men (the real Ah Lock soon turns up dead in Cranport), most of the Chinese characters are so insufficiently characterized that the reader does not feel even a minimal emotional stake in their fates.

Characterization is something for which writers like Street have been faulted by some and here it definitely seems an issue. Had Street been able to get beyond these casual, generic anthropological assertions and make his characters not simply names but something approaching real individuals it would have made a stronger, and less potentially offensive, book. Unfortunately, the perspective he offers remains quite a limited one, very much that of an outsider peering into a world he only dimly perceives.  Merrion arguably is worse than the other white characters in the novel, because he presumes to think he knows better.

Here's an exchange in the novel that shows the limitations of Street's approach: With perhaps one exception (an upper class Chinese man; see below), he never really takes you into the minds of his Chinese characters, except on the most superficial, stereotypical level.  The owner of Cranport's Celestial Laundry, a Scot named Mackay, is asked about Ah Lock, who was one of his Chinese workers:

"You tell me that you have known Ah Lock for years," said Lapworth.  "What sort of man was he?"

"A very good laundry hand," Mackay replied.  "Most Chinese are good at laundry work, and that's why I always employ then.  Ah Lock was one of the best.  But he always was a queer chap in his way. The others were always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word. It wasn't that he kept aloof from the rest of them, but that he didn't seem to share their interests.  I don't know why it was."

"Did that make him unpopular, Mr. Mackay?" Arnold asked.

"I don't know that it did," Mackay replied.  "I never saw any signs of ill-feeling.  But you never can tell with these Chinese.  They don't display their feelings except among themselves.  I don't speak the language, though I've picked up a few words."

Here too is included the "chattering like monkeys" line that Noah criticized. Obviously this is a phrase that inevitably provokes consternation today, especially in such contexts, yet is it so hard to imagine that in 1957 it might have been uttered by a British person in such a context? (American football commentator Howard Cosell was widely criticized in 1983 for referring to a black wide receiver as a "little monkey.")

A lot of the regrettable and dated observations in the novel are based, arguably, on classism rather than racism. Again, Merrion makes a point of saying he is talking about uneducated Chinese.  Both Merrion and the police behave differently when they deal with educated or property-owning Chinese. The "coolie" characters are never addressed as "Mr.," yet a woman Chinese grocer is referred to as "Mrs. Din Gow" and Ling Tam, the head of an aid society for poor Chinese living in England, as "Mr. Ling Tam. The latter indivudal in fact is treated quite deferentially by the police.

It helps that Ling Tam speaks perfect English, has impeccable manners and is "remarkably well-dressed": "Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man."  The rather insular Arnold, "somewhat relieved by his appearance," the author dryly observes, is soon enough inviting Ling Tam to lunch.

Though Merrion expresses distaste for Chinese music, the novel is by not necessarily dismissive of all things Chinese.  When he discourses on Chinese culinary customs to Arnold and a bemused provincial policeman, the subject of chopsticks inevitably arises:

"I have never been able to to understand how anyone can eat with chopsticks," Lapworth remarked.

"It takes some practice, at least for a European," Merrion replied.  "But after  a while, you find that it isn't really difficult.  An expert can pick up a single grain of rice with the greatest of ease."

And then there's the author on Chinese calligraphy:

He...produced a roll of parchment, which he handed to Arnold...."just look at the neatness and symmetry of the writing.  Each character is drawn with the most scrupulous accuracy.  A work of infinite patience, executed by an artist."

Even to Arnold, who hadn't the slightest idea which way up to hold the parchment, the beauty of the writing on it was apparent...."It's magnificent," he said, as he handed back the parchment.

Though reflecting weaknesses from what might be termed his own "white British ways" (namely a reflexive imperialist viewpoint), Street was, I think, genuinely trying to provide his readers an interesting book in The Chinese Puzzle, something that was off the beaten track of classic English mystery.  As a formal mystery it manages to hold interest as Merrion tries to solve a strange series of crimes, if one can get past Merrion's more dubious anthropological pronouncements and the plethora of pidgin English.

Although the book unquestionably now is quite dated, Street managed to update it to include more topical political references, which lend the novel some additional interest. However, Street wrote notably better books, even in the mid- to late-1950s. I hope to review some of them here this year, now that the British Library has reprinted a couple of Miles Burton novels from the 1930s.


  1. You've piqued my interest--if I can find a copy at an affordable price, I'd like to read it.

    1. Joe, Puzzle had been available on the internet, although without permission from the estate, which hasn't been very cooperative about making Street's books available in English. (They only recently made two titles available through the British Library.) Don't know whether it still is.

      I hope that more of his books become available. The Chinese Puzzle is not terrible, looked at purely as a mystery, but it's far from his best, and of course there's the moral dimension highlighted by Noah Stewart.

      I'm adding a link above to a Goodreads reviewer who actually gave Puzzle four stars, so it shows you just can't predict how every reader will see these things.

    2. Does the appearance of the two British Library titles indicate a more reasonable attitude on the part of the Street estate? Is there a chance some of the John Rhode titles might be issued by the British Library as well?

  2. It'll be available eventually, I suppose. We really are living in the "golden age" for the Golden Age, with Coachwhip, Dean Street, and the British Library--and with the work you are doing.