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: