Sunday, March 20, 2016

Unlocking The Chinese Puzzle (1957)

As discussed in my last blog post, a recent column by a blogger friend of mine, Noah Stewart, recently took English classic mystery writer John Street severely to task for "disgraceful attitudes and comments" about Chinese people in his late "Miles Burton" detective novel The Chinese Puzzle (1957).  On the other hand, eminent scholars and critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their mammoth encyclopedia A Catalogue of Crime praised the novel as one with which a reader "can spend a soothing and enjoyable evening."  Quite a difference of opinion!

Completing the circle of critical reactions to the book, I have to add that when I read Puzzle years ago, my take was more on middle ground. Street was an awesomely prolific author, probably the most prolific of writers of classical detection in the history of the genre; and his later novels tend to be tired works, marked by flagging inspiration.

Considered purely as a mystery, Puzzle actually is better than some of his later works, a point that led me to wonder, given the use of what admittedly seems rather dated Chinese material, whether Street in composing the novel drew on older, unpublished work.

On the other hand, some of his later novels, like Bones in the Brickfield (1958) and Return from the Dead (1959) are stronger, so this may not be the case.  In any event, even though I actually at some length addressed accusations of racism and ethnocentrism which have been made against Street in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (Street is hardly alone in having been the subject of these accusations; they have been made against most Golden Age mystery writer of note at one time or another), I barely considered The Chinese Puzzle in Masters.  I believe the only place I mentioned the novel is in a footnote when I noted that China was supposed to be one of the many areas of expertise of Desmond Merrion, the gentleman amateur sleuth in the Miles Burton series.

So I thought to myself, why not give a detailed look at The Chinese Puzzle on the blog?  Why not really give it an intensive going over, and see what shakes out as a result?  One thing I want to assure readers, the novel is a genuine detective novel, not a Sax Rohmer type thriller, even though some of the early Miles Burtons, like The Secret of High Elderhsam (1930) are essentially thrillers (for much more on the books of John Street and his life, see Masters).

So, whatever the impression given by the William Randell dust jacket pictured above (a graphically striking piece of work by one of the great Collins jacket artists, but likely in itself to raise eyebrows today), it is not a Rohmeresque extravaganza, but rather a typical Burton provincial English mystery, though with the exception of having a goodly number of Chinese characters.  And that latter aspect is, of course, the crux of the matter.

I also have a piece on Patricia Wentworth coming up which I think should interest readers, so stay tuned to this channel!


  1. Although I've read a lot of the Dr Priestley mysteries I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read any of Street's Miles Burton books. Of course with Street there's always been the problem of finding of actually finding his books! The only ones that are affordable are DEATH IN THE TUNNEL and DEATH AT LOW TIDE. Would you recommend either of these?

    1. Well, those recommendations are all in my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, only $15 as an eBook, but the British Library reprints of The Secret of High Elderhsam and Death in the Tunnel make a good place and cheap to start. The latter is more a thriller, but a good one. The latter is a rather dry tale of detection, but a good one.

      Miles Burton books are so rare now, you'll have a challenge finding anything not dear. Ironically Elderhsam was one of the easier ones to find even before the BL reprinted it. Also The Hardway Diamonds Mystery, but that's another thriller, not bad.

  2. I recently attended a book group that had read Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body. They had never heard of Sayers before (!!!) and were appalled at the anti-Semitism casually expressed by the characters. Of course, that continues through the Lord Peter series, right into Busman's Honeymoon. Apparently, Sayers' publishers didn't object -- or think it would limit sales. Imagine if she did that now!

    1. It definitely comes up, in both Sayers and Christie's books. I've written two book on Engllsh mystery writers, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery and The Spectrum of English Murder, and I address depictions of Jews in the case of each writer covered: John Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, JJ Connington, Henry Wade, GDH Cole, Margaret Cole. The subject has also been addressed by me in the introductions I've written to the reissues of ER Punshon novels. I've also done a blog piece elsewhere on some of the more regrettable pronouncements of Anthony Berkeley. So it certainly is an issue, though I think Golden Age writers can vary in their depictions, as I attempt to show in my discussions.