#181: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Strangers in Strange Lands: When East Comes West…

tnbs-foreign

Alongside classic detective fiction and locked room/impossible crime mysteries of every date, stripe, and hue, I read a moderate amount of both classic and modern SF.  And as much as I rejoice in the closedness of the ‘rules’ of detective fiction, I take equal delight in the free-form craziness that can open up in front of you in excellent SF.

This occurred to me while reading one of the books under discussion today purely because of the way SF can be used to explore the ‘other’ — taking aliens, or any other pan-dimensional being (coughIndianaJones4cough), or sentient machines and trying to break them down in out terms (Orson Scott Card’s first sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead (1986), is one very good exploration of this).  I wanted to look this same principle when used in detective fiction, taking a visitor from foreign climes and then exposing them to Western culture and vice versa, and from the perspective of a Western author, no less, so I give you…

tibet-china

Both The Man from Tibet (1938) by Clyde Clason and Mystery in St. James’s Square (1937) by Gilbert Collins have white, Western men as their ostensible focus, and both books have these men utilising the skills of an Oriental factotum/major domo/companion/whathaveyou at a time when an Eastern face in a Western setting was quite a novel experience.  The Clason goes one further and introduces a religious leader from Tibet, too, and it’s the way these two books go about applying this Eastern thread to their plots is interesting in the sheer opposition they take.

We might as well confront straight up that Clason seems by far the less comfortable of the two, though perhaps as his knowledge seems to have been gleaned at arm’s length — he lists a bibliography of 55 books (yup, fifty-five) as the basis of his research — he’s therefore more inclined to keep the subjects of said research as separate as possible.  Thus, his ostensible protagonist Adam Merriweather has a keen interest in Tibetan manuscripts and gods, but has not deigned to learn the language and instead devolves all responsibility on these lines to his semi-Westernised Tibetan secretary Chang.  Chang — blandly smiling throughout, whether that be interpreted as mindless, kind, threatening, or somewhere in between any given pair thereof — is always presented as an unknown presence, necessarily under suspicion or spouting exposition as required, but never really known either for his motives or his feelings on any matter, the deliberate cipher who is imbued with trust purely because the plot requires it.

Now, to be clear, I am not claiming any racism or love of the Yellow Peril on Clason’s part — we’ll come to the religious lama in a bit — but it’s interesting just how erudite his use of this particular niche is.  The novel opens with a traveller relaying a story of their own experiences in China and Tibet (still closed to foreigners at the time, as Clason covers), and full of details on clothing, language, economics, and other fascinating insights gathered from textbooks.  And it feels like a textbook, too, treated with a reverence that comes from careful study which is eager to replicate itself and be seen knowing in every particular.  This extends throughout, from the lecture on the masks of Tibetan gods Merriweather keeps in his specially-dedicated room to the extended discussion on manuscripts and how the diphthongs of the Chinese language replicate themselves in English speech…yes, fine, it’s all very correct, but it stalls the plot horrendously and the characters get completely lost in the tidal wave of detail detail detail.

Conversely, Gilbert Collins’ take — we’ll leaved out the authorship controversy so excellently expounded by Gavin L. O’Keefe in the introduction of this Ramble House edition, and for ease simply treat Collins as the sole author — gives us a Chinese character who is far fuller a picture as a person, perhaps more fully informed by direct experience: Collins wrote at least two books detailing his own travels in China and so has seen up close that which Clason appears to have merely read about.

Confusingly for the purposes of this post, Collins’ character is also called Chang, but thankfully has far more about him to keep him distinct.  In the search for the missing aeroplane plans that forms the basis of Collins’ novel, it’s arguable that Chang is actually the lead detective — he is the master of disguise (about which more later), he is the cryptographer, he is the one gifted in logical deduction, and if anything is shown to have the upper hand on nominal detective Derek Lavering on more than a few occasions.  The men are essentially equals, with Chang taking no bantering or baiting from Lavering without biting back: there’s a lovely moment when Lavering accuses him of lacking the spirit of Confucius in her personal philosophies, and Chang is quick to point out that Lavering doesn’t exactly comport himself like Boadicea.  Moments like this enrich both the characters and the lot they’re in together.

Collins equally does not shy away from Chang’s less salubrious aspects — he is undoubtedly a very tough customer, quick with a gun and possessed of a clarity of physical necessity that does not shy away from the need for sometimes unpleasant actions.  And before you start thinking that Collins employs him purely to lave his Western hero’s hands of any dirty work, it should be pointed out that Lavering is equally quick to put himself at risk searching a suspect’s house or leaping into the fray as required.  True, Chang is often there to pick up the pieces when Lavering messes up, but it’s not like Lavering is always waiting in the car for Chang to scuttle back and info-dump plot developments uncovered in his “master’s” absence.

Both Collins and Lavering are quick to correct the assumptions of others that Chang is in any way “his Chinaman”, as he’s frequently referred to.  In fact, besides the simple fact of his being Chinese — Lavering has returned from Secret Service work in China, working closely with Chang — there’s actually no need for Chang to be Chinese: it forms no part of the plot, there’s no shoe-horning in of some sudden Chinese text or cipher or any other contrived aspect that Chang is there to conveniently deal with.  Lavering could equally have been in Russia or Iceland or Guinea-Bissau and come back with a native of those lands.  You simply feel that Collins knows the Chinese people and culture from his travels and so has written what he himself has experienced.

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A respectful trend that continues to this day…

Clason has therefore taken on the harder task of actually making the ‘foreign’ culture part of his milieu for the purposes of necessity — I shall not spoil how, but it plays at least a small role in the nature of the locked-room murder he writes here — and this could well be why the people he offers feel so false: they’re really more part of the background, the atmosphere, so that his pompous, racist, avaricious old man can be killed in an ingenious manner.  Thus Clason’s Tibetan lama, chasing a manuscript stolen from him, provides little more than colour and blandishments of the “Sometime good luck.  Sometime long liking, it turning same way as Wheel ob Birt’ and Deat’ which cannot stop till kalpa end” variety.

I like the Clason book far less of the two, but even I’m not so dense as to wish to claim that he was going out of his way to be offensive — I maintain, as I said up top, that he’s simply relating something learned at one remove through at least secondary data and so doesn’t have the feel for the people he’s trying to write (this extends to pretty much all the people in the book, too — none of them really feel real).  The fact that two such similar themes were explored within a year of each other and in such contrasting ways in actually kinda fascinating, and these books made very interesting comparative reading.  I’m sure someone else could do a much better job of comparing them, too, but I’ve already gone on long enough and need to wrap this up or else you won’t get your own wrapping up done (see what I did there?).

So, to finish, a point of divergence between the two books: Collins has Chang disguise himself as a Western man at one point by wearing appropriate clothes and a pair of pince-nez that magnify his eyes (though how they’d do this without wrecking his vision I don’t know) and disguise the width of the bridge of this nose, which Collins treats as the main physiological differences duly allowed for, job done.  Yet Clason has a discussion where his characters assert that a man in a full fake beard dark, glasses covering his eyes, and  a hat pulled down low to shade his face couldn’t be Chinese because there’s no way he’d be able to pass as a Western man even when that heavily disguised.  Who’s correct?  Well, there’s only one way to settle it….FIGHT!!!

Uh, no, wait, I mean discuss it in the comments below, of course.  And thank-you for your attention if you made it this far.  Go and have a cup of tea, you’ve definitely earned it.

~

Allow me to make a late swing at Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block by submitting the cover of Mystery in St. James’s Square under the category Bird.

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12 thoughts on “#181: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Strangers in Strange Lands: When East Comes West…

  1. Great piece. I’ve often found it interesting to see how the east or the west is depicted in a book depending on the nationality or experiences of the author. I heard this was the book Clason was most proud of, but I think you’ve taken a bullet for me there, as I don’t think I would enjoy reading mountains of detail. Conversely with my TNB book today, the author did live and work in the country he set his book in, yet his depiction of that country is quite myopic in some ways. Never heard of Gilbert Collins before. Is this your first read by him?

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    • Yup, this was my first Collins — not sure how available his previous books are, as this is the only one put out by Ramble House. It’s a curious hybrid of thriller and detection, though, given the contention over who exactly wrote it, it’d be difficult to ascertain precisely how much this reflects his previous work…

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  2. I have Clason’s ‘Man from Tibet’ on the shelf, but not Collins’s ‘Mystery in St James’s Square’. Would either be worth reading from the standpoint of the puzzle offered…?

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    • What I neglected to mention here — I was up against a bit of a deadline, tbh — is that the Collins has a sort of Man from U.N.C.L.E. vibe, being a bit of detection, a bit of thriller, a bit of mystery, and a stir of MacGuffin. The code-breaking/secret message side of things is relayed both in huge detail and sudden lapses of said detail where he goes “and so it turns out it says….”, and as a puzzle it’s not really the peak of the form. But it’s an interesting enough period piece straddling enough stools to make it worth a look if you don’t have to pay £15 for it.

      Clason I find tedious. This is the second of his that I’ve read, and there’s a huge amount of setup for a very late impossible murer and then a slow process of solution that only just squeaks in before the book ends. I’ll not be returning to him again, and I’d personally say that you can find the same idea herein done far better elsewhere. But, as always, that’s only my opinion — many others will disagree, I’m sure. And they’re all wrong 😉

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      • Thanks for the input, which I’m sure is unequivocally correct. 🙂 On Clason, I’ve only read ‘Dragon’s Cave’, which I didn’t find tedious, though it was slightly longer than I expected. I think my main problem with it was that certain key aspects didn’t seem to have been properly clued, but I broadly enjoyed it. I still have ‘Green Shiver’ and ‘Man from Tibet’ awaiting reading…

        Which other Clason have you read?

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        • The Death Angel, which takes a very interesting situation and dulls the hell out of it.

          Clason is for me the epitome of an author whose talent and authorly skill fall so short of his ideas that he really shouldn’t have bothered in thr first place — he’d’ve been much better giving the ideas to someone else to write, because now they’ve been done very poorly and no-one has the chance to write those plots any more without plagiarising him…

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  3. I enjoyed The Man from Tibet. In fact it’s really the only Clason mystery I’ve liked. Like you I also have a problem with his tedious style. GREEN SHIVER is probably the worst of the lot, IMO. And MURDER GONE MINOAN is also frequently tedious despite the interesting archeological background. I found a copy of THE WHISPERING EAR (extremely rare book and one of two Clason books no reprinted by Rue Morgue) and started it and thought it so dry it might as well be made of day old toast. That’s when I gave up on him.

    Gilbert Collins wrote detective fiction and adventure fiction as well as travelogues about his time in Asia when he was diplomat there, foreign consul to China, among other stints. On my blog I’ve reviewed one of each of the genres: The Starkenden Quest, a very entertaining lost race novel. Recommended for all those who like a bit of Indiana Jones type pulpy adventure every now and then. However, The Dead Walk (not about zombies, sorry to say) is a very poor detective novel. I have two others detective novels by Collins. Murder at Brambles (aka The Phantom Tourer) does have some promise though I set aside and never finished it. The other I bought and never got to even though with the intriguing title Horror at Thripplands I thought I would’ve ripped right through it the day after It arrived in my home.

    I have no idea what Gavin O’Keefe wrote in his intro, but Collins was sued for plagiarism when Mystery of St James Square came out. In my introduction to THE STARKENDEN QUEST (Raven’s Head Press, 2013) I write about the court case. I found all the original newspaper reports. The courts decided Collins stole the story and published it as his own. The publicity of the court trial ruined his career as a writer. He never had a thing published afterward.

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    • Glad that someone else finds Clason dry; I’m amazed he went on for as long as he did in this, there just seemed so much that could have been cut. They had editors back then, right? If I’d enjoyed Clason more, I’d be immensely interested in those two books that RM didn’t reprint…now I’m just curious as to why they left them alone!

      It raises an interesting point about how much we just assume an author wrote, I suppose: I trust that Ramble House have published all the Rupert Penny novels, for instance, but how do I actually know this without somehow verifying it for myself? And how many of tje sources I find will ave used Ramble House as their own source? Argh! Not, y’know, that I’m specifically worried about the Pennys per se, it’s just the fist name that jumped into my head.

      And I can’t say that I was wondering whether to be curious about reading more by Collins, so your comments have helped there, too — think I’ll put him aside and move onto more attainable goals. Thanks, John!

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      • For some reason, my local library bought a whole bunch of the Clason reissues, and I think I’ve tried to break through the tedious prose of three. Thank you for giving me the heart to stop trying! I loved your comment about how Clason ruined a number of good plot ideas for authors who might have made a better go of them. The blurbs on the back are definite lures, the contents themselves a slow wallow.

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        • Pretty cool to have a library invest in classic reprints, but it’s a shame they’re not more…good. In stark contrast to Christie — who took what sounded like standard plots and was able to spin fabulous books from them — Clason really is master of the hook and a novice of the prose and plot. Thankfully plenty of others were, in the same era, doing both very well indeed — or at least excelling at the latter — so I guess we shouldn’t feel like we missed out too much, eh?

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