Saturday, March 19, 2016

Puzzling Over Racism in Golden Age Mystery: The Case of John Street

Blogger Noah Stewart recently came across The Chinese Puzzle (1957), the late, admittedly not so good, "Miles Burton" detective novel by John Street.  (Noah calls him "Cecil Street," which is a common error derived from the fact that his full name was Cecil John Charles Street.  However Street, like Cecil Day Lewis did not want to be known as "Cecil"--it seems there's just something about that name!)  There are many much superior Street books available, which I discuss in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, but unfortunately they mostly are long out-of-print and extremely expensive and The Chinese Puzzle happens to be available--though not with the estate's permission--on the internet; so it's easy pickings, so to speak.

The British Library has reprinted two of John Street's Burton novels, Death in The Tunnel and The Secret of High Eldersham.  I gave the British Library contact information for Street's literary estate and they chose these two novels, which are ones I praise in my book Masters, though judging from Martin Edwards' introduction the fact that they were praised by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime was likely the key factor in the selection.  The two highly learned men were great admirers of John Street's crime fiction. 

And, lo and behold, here's what Barzun and Taylor had to say about The Chinese Puzzle:

This story of what amounts to Chinese gang activity in an English seaport certainly flies in the face of Father Knox's rule, but despite the pidgin English, rice, and occasional opium smoking, one can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening with it.  It is one of Burton's better efforts to make [amateur sleuth] Desmond Merrion effective as well as imaginative. The political background of the killings is credible and the villain reasonable enough.

Did Noah Stewart spend a soothing and enjoyable evening with The Chinese Puzzle?  One can safely say not.  The book for him proved quite nettlesome.  Noah condemns the "disgraceful attitudes and comments" in the book and places it on his Dread List of Mysteries to Avoid, a highly entertaining series of blog pieces I recommend to readers of this blog if they are not familiar with it.

The problem to my mind with Noah's take on Burton here is that Street, though a classic crime writer much prized by collectors, is just coming back into broader public view with the advent of the British Library reprints; and I would hate to see people now persuaded that this Street character was simply an awful old white racist.  Sure enough, here's a telling comment from blogger Brad Friedman on Noah's blog: "The late publication does surprise me, so I guess we're dealing with an out and out racist in Major Street."

I hope Brad corrects me if I'm wrong, but it appears that he is suggesting that if one published a book with stereotypes and generalizations about a group in the 1950s one is an "out and out racist," but if one did these things in the 1920s and 1930s one is not responsible for them.  This has the happy effect, we might think, of letting writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers off the hook for, for example, antisemitic passages in their work, though I don't know what we should make, then, of Christie's very unattractive portrait of a Jewish woman in The Hollow, published in 1946, immediately after the Second World War. Shouldn't Christie have known better by that time?  How could she be so unthinking?  Should we conclude that she was an "out and out" anti-Semite?

In Noah's reply to Brad's comment, he concedes: "What gets me is it wasn't ACTIVELY racist.  It's not like Street loathed Chinese people and wanted to make fun of them.  It was more pernicious than that...he was just too damn lazy to bother to do actual research."

I think this gets at the heart of the problem with The Chinese Puzzle, not only morally, to take Noah's approach, but also simply as a mystery.  Whether or not every patronizing or stereotyping sentiment about Chinese laborers uttered in the book by a character, including the rather dunderheaded Inspector Arnold (whom the superior Merrion often has to educate), can fairly be attributed to Street, the author never individualizes the Chinese characters enough to make the mystery matter to the reader, in my view.

Only one Chinese character ever emerges as an individualized character, an elite person who speaks perfect English as I recollect. "Humdrum" writers often are accused of having characters who are basically just names.  That's really true of The Chinese Puzzle, with the exceptions of series regulars Merrion and Arnold, along with one Chinese character--the only characters from the book I can remember!

And the milieu does seem dated, as Barzun and Taylor, who actually liked the book--they were great fans of Street's tales--implicitly indicated.  By 1957, some readers might reasonably have expected something besides opium, rice and pidgin English in a detective novel dealing with Chinese characters, though Barzun and Taylor, writing years later, seemed mostly to be mildly objecting not to any racism, but rather thriller elements proscribed by Ronald Knox in his rules for detective fiction.

Had Street published The Chinese Puzzle in 1927 rather than 1957 these elements would not have been deemed uncharacteristic in a crime novel.  Indeed, in my view the book is much less objectionable a work than many that were published in the Twenties and Thirties. Let's not forget Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu Series, which ran from 1913 right up to 1959, two years after the publication of Puzzle, not to mention a certain Dr. No, who popped up as late as 1958.

Could Puzzle in fact have been based on material Street composed earlier, in the twenties even? (he published his first crime novel in 1924), as blogger John Norris suggested in a comment on Noah's blog and I did on Facebook?  It would be one explanation of why this book, utterly uncharacteristic of Street's work--I can't even recall another book by him at the moment with Asian characters--suddenly popped up in 1957.

Whenever it was written Street (and Collins) has to take responsibility for its publication, but I do worry, from comments on Noah's blog, that Street, a writer just now starting to register with the broader class of vintage mystery readers again, may be dismissed as an "out and out racist" and left unread.  It's a bit different when Noah in his unsparing fashion slams the work of, for example, Ngaio Marsh, because most classic mystery fans are familiar enough with Marsh to have made their own estimate of the author.  People who like Marsh will go on liking her whatever Noah has to say about it. For most people, however, John Street is a blank slate, now graffiti'd as a racist.

For readers who want to learn more about Street, there's some detail in Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder and a huge amount of detail in my book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, which seeks to contextualize the detective fiction of Street as well as Freeman Wills Crofts and J. J. Connington.  Because they, along with myriad other Golden Age mystery writers who have been routinely accused of racism and various other offenses, in the book I considered the charges concerning each writer, particularly the most common one, anti-Semitism.

I argue in Masters that Street's early political writings, which he later abandoned for a mystery fiction career,  indicate that he believed the world was better off under the ostensibly benevolent influence, as he saw it, of the British Empire, a not altogether uncommon view among white English people in his day. At one point he patriotically asserts that British colonial African troops have much better standards of discipline and behavior than French colonial African troops, Street evidently not being one to believe that the French could better the British!

On the other hand I point out instances of flexible thinking on Street's part.  On the matter of anti-Semitism he was a vocal critic of the appallingly ignorant bigotry cruelly paraded in the Polna Ritual Murders Case and a defender of Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading, a prominent Anglo-Jewish politician whose involvement in the Marconi Scandal led to his vilification by Hillaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling, among many others.

I also make the case in Masters that Street frequently criticized aristocratic privilege and praised men who made their livings in business and mechanical trades.  Though Street himself came of a landed gentry background on his mother's side and career military on his father's, he was fascinated with mechanics and technology and had great respect for men who built themselves up through their native skill and application.

Street led something of daring personal life, living, after his estrangement from his wife, with another woman, the love of his life, whom he was only able to marry after his first wife's death. Even his great friend John Dickson Carr did not know that John and Eileen Street were not actually husband and wife at the time he lived in England and socialized with them.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Street occasionally expresses liberal attitudes about sex and divorce laws in his books.

All this does not exonerate Street for any literary crimes he committed in The Chinese Puzzle, but I hope it shows readers that there is more to the man.  I hope people will read the new BL Miles Burton volumes (I wish they had reprinted Murder MD and The Cat Jumps as well) and, if they enjoy them, check our my Masters for the full story on John Street, an interesting, if no doubt flawed, individual, and a talented mystery writer, even if he had his off books.  He wrote over 140 of them and Masters is a good place to find out which were the good ones.  Heck even confining the selection to the late-50s, Noah would have been much better off reading Bones in the Brickfield. Consider this a shout-out to the British Library.

More on The Chinese Puzzle coming soon.  For more blog detail on Street:


  1. Not sure if I've ever posted a comment before, but I'm a long time reader--and I must say that your discussion of Street is very thoughtful, nuanced, and persuasive. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, joe, I don't recall your ever posting here before, but I appreciate the comment. It really does mean a lot to me to know people value this blog.

  2. "By 1957, some readers might reasonably have expected something besides opium, rice and pidgin English in a detective novel dealing with Chinese characters . . ."

    This is what I meant, Curtis, by my response to Noah's blog. I have had to reconcile myself to reading the blatant anti-semitism in Christie, and I don't excuse it, no matter how much I admire her work. Midge Hardcastle - hardly my favorite "bright young thing" in Christie - takes out her hatred of her job on her customers, but I'm sure that the author is, to some extent, speaking through her character.

    You are correct in saying that, by 1946, post-WWII, Christie should have known better, and I have read in other places that she did. At the same time, by the late 50's, Street should have known better than to write something that smelled this bad. Would one find worse in the 1920's? No doubt, and you have certainly been stuck reading more of these than I have. I guess I thought that as prolific an author as Street would have been enlightened enough to do his research on a race of people.

    I don't think my comment in Noah's blog should be read to mean that I would never read Street. Nor do I think that my comment holds the power to stop others from reading him. Would I were such an authority!

    1. I think The Hollow contained Christie's last instance of antisemitism, but it's rather surprising to me that that bit appeared in the aftermath of the Second World War. Her American publisher received letters of complaint, including from the Anti-Defamation League. Had Christie included any additional instances in her book her American publishers would have deleted them.

      “After the Second World War, some readers, especially Americans, were not amused by her characters’ views on ethnic differences. Christie’s publishers received letters, including one from the Anti-Defamation League. Her agent … didn’t forward them to her. He simply gave Dodd, Mead, her American publishers, permission to delete any politically offensive references to Jews or Catholics. She apparently didn’t notice the changes.”

      I agree Street should have done better, whether this book appeared in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s. But in the 1950s we still had Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming, so thriller conventions had not entirely passed from the scene. Streets book is still really more a formal detective novel than a thriller and it does not have a literal Fu Manchu type as I recollect or such lurid material. I may formally review the book myself here. I actually have it in dust jacket.

    2. Posted my own review, Brad, hope you take a look. I'm not sure that the 1950s was an era of general enlightenment in all ways, but I do agree Street could have done a better book.

  3. I think your summary is pretty fair and sensible.

    If you go looking for things to be offended by in books of the past you'll always find them. The only safe way to avoid being offended is to lock the doors and hide under the bed. The world is full of things that we don't like. Being an adult means you learn to deal with it. If you burst into tears or throw a hissy fit every time something offends you you'll have a very sad life. The world isn't a safe space. Nanny isn't always there to hold your hand. In the real world you're going to encounter people who disagree with you, who hold opinions you might not like. If you expect them to respect your opinions you have to respect theirs.

  4. Many thanks for an excellent essay. I do think some people go looking for things to be outraged about, which is a foolish pastime when it comes to the popular fiction of decades ago. I must confess I gave up reading Dennis Wheatley because of his obnoxious racial attitudes, but I'll still happily read authors like Edgar Wallace, William Makepeace Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan -- the latter, often accused of overt racism, in fact delivered exactly the opposite message in Prester John . . . as, come to think of it, so often did Kipling.

    So often, yes, the writers should have known better. But a lot of our current writers may face similar criticism a few decades hence.

    1. I'm glad you liked the piece and let me know.

      When this topic comes up I'm always reminded that Todd Downing, a liberal part-Choctaw Golden Age mystery writer and staunch opponent of American colonialism, grew up reading Sex Rohmer Fu Manchu tales was remained a nostalgic fan of his books as an adult. I think he saw it all as escapist fantasy with little real world connection. We all have to make our own judgments as readers about these things. I certainly have been known to enjoy certain period thrillers myself.

    2. I adore the Fu Manchu books. Oddly enough they haven't made me hate Chinese people. Actually I don't think Sax Rohmer hated Chinese people either. Fu Manchu is a fascinatingly complex character. He's a man of honour whose word is his bond, he's brave and highly intelligent and by his own lights he's a man fighting for a noble cause. His cause just happens to make him an enemy of western civilisation. He admires Nayland Smith and sees him as a brave and honourable man who just happens to be an enemy of eastern civilisation.

      Dennis Wheatley is another author of outrageous potboilers whose worldview was actually rather complex.

      People who go looking for things to be offended by often end up cherry-picking certain phrases or certain passages and often miss the overall picture which can be a lot more complicated.

    3. Sax Rohmer could certainly spin a tale and it's interesting that all his books have been brought back into print today, unedited. I hope sometime this year to talk about Rohmer dome more.

  5. Thanks as always for an informed and well-written piece, Curtis. I do think that it's absolutely pointless to judge the literature of previous times by the attitudes of today. No doubt if authors such as Christie and even Rohmer were writing today, they would not be writing in the terms in which they did - their publishers would not allow it, for one thing - but they're not. They were writing in former times, when racist/sexist/anything you like-ist attitudes were more widespread, and more widely accepted, than they are nowadays. If one is going to read their books now, one has to judge their works in the context of their time. The endless hand-wringing about their attitudes ('Oh yes, Christie is SO anti-Semitic, isn't she?')completely ignores any merit the work may have in other areas such as plot, readability and pacing, and in many cases detracts from a balanced judgement of it.

    1. Thanks, Carol. And, yes, I greatly enjoy The Hollow, a very accomplished book by the Queen of Crime. That one passage for me I'd describe as a blot, but it doesn't cancel the merit of the book overall. The Chinese Puzzle certainly isn't Streets greatest moment as a mystery writer but I hope people don't judge him solely by this one book. With Christie we of course know so much about her, that's not so for most people with Street. So I wanted to tell the rest of the story.

  6. The problem to my mind with Noah's take on Burton here is that Street, though a classic crime writer much prized by collectors, is just coming back into broader public view with the advent of the British Library reprints, and Noah's review may well undermine that good work by convincing people that Street was simply an awful old white racist of a particularly vile sort

    That's a very pertinent point. The last thing we need is for the subject of golden age detective fiction to become politicised. That will kill the current revival stone dead. Publishers (who are generally fairly timid) will become frightened and they'll stop re-issuing these books. We already have a problem with publishers censoring these books, which (apart from being morally wrong) is a huge mistake since it simply draws attention to the matters in question.

    And let's be honest - virtually every book published before about 1990 is vulnerable to attack for not being politically correct. If we throw Street under the bus we could end up losing every other GA writer.

    We also do not need the world of GA fandom (a horrible word but I'm tired and I can't think of a better one right now) to be torn apart by political arguments.

    1. Criticism is fair game, but I'd also like to see fair play. In Streets case there a book devoted to the man--my book--that people could look at to have a fuller understanding of the man. And, yes, there are plenty of other authors who have been, and will continue to be, criticized on these grounds. It's one reason why some people won't read Golden Age detective fiction at all, they don't like some of the attitudes expressed therein. its something every reader of Golden Age detective fiction has to make her own judgments about today.