REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


VIVIAN CONNELL The Chinese Room

  VIVIAN CONNELL – The Chinese Room. Dial Press, hardcover, 1942; The Citadel Press, hc, 1943 (shown). [See bibliographic note below.] Paperback reprint: Bantam 454, 1948 (with numerous later printings).

  THE CHINESE ROOM. Clasa Films Mundiales, 1968. Guillermo Murray, Elizabeth Campbell, Carlos Rivas, Regina Torn, Cathy Crosby. Based on the novel by Vivian Connell. Screenplay/director: Albert Zugsmith.

   Much like the Curt Siodmak book (Whomsoever I Shall Kiss, reviewed here ), The Chinese Room starts out with a great premise for a murder mystery: Nicholas Bude is a wealthy London Banker with a wife in the country and a mistress in the city whose sterile life is disrupted when a servant’s daughter commits suicide.

   It develops that the dead girl was in the habit of writing anonymous threatening letters to herself, and while discussing this with a doctor helping the police, Bude gets into a heated argument about loneliness and lonely minds.

   He makes a bet with the doctor that anyone with a normal mind (himself, for instance) could send himself threatening letters without being driven to suicide, and the doctor dares him to prove it, which he agrees to do, in front of witnesses.

VIVIAN CONNELL The Chinese Room

   Then he starts getting anonymous threatening letters. Is he writing them himself, without knowing it, is someone trying to drive him to suicide or setting him up for murder?

   Like I say, it’s a great start for a classic mystery just improbable enough to sound bizarre without stretching it too far, but Vivian Connell abandons it for long stretches to talk about sex.

   Now I’m not one to object to lots of sex in a book. Even gratuitous sex is sex, after all, and I don’t mind it a bit. In fact, when it was published in war-time England, The Chinese Room shocked and titillated a nation, say the publicists. And it still has the power to shock and titillate those who are easily shocked and titillated.

   Others might find the story of a husband and wife who are horny as hell but sexually incompatible a bit tame I know I kept wishing Connell would get back to the Mystery of the letters. But as soon as Bude’s wife gets around to discovering them and deciding to unravel the mystery herself, all the clues fall into her lap in the first hour, and Connell gets right back to the sex.

      By the way, Chinese Room was filmed ineptly, but with surprising fidelity by Albert Zugsmith in 1968.

VIVIAN CONNELL The Chinese Room

   It’s worth mentioning because in the world of Cinema, Zugsmith was a true wandering soul, producing classics like Touch of Evil, Written on the Wind and The Incredible Shrinking Man, along with alternative classics and pure schlock like High School Confidential, Confessions of an Opium Eater and Sex Kittens Go to College.

   Truly an artist in a class by himself, and a good thing, too. His film of Chinese Room has some interesting ideas, but it suffers from the usual Zugsmith stigmata of minimal budget, deplorable script and regrettable acting problems Zugsmith sometimes rose above, but not here.

Bibliographic Note:   From the Amazon description of the Barricade (2005) reprint edition. “First published in America in 1942, Dial recalled the original edition soon after publication. The Society for the Suppression of Vice demanded the censorship due to the sexual nature of a particular phrase. Citadel Press offered an edition in 1943 minus the offending phrase, and a bestseller emerged, eventually selling more than three million copies in its various editions.”

   On abebooks.com, two copies of what are said to be the Dial edition are offered. The asking price for one is $4.69, including postage (but is described as a reprint). The other, described as a First Edition, will set you back $4998.00. Both are hardcovers without jackets. Any takers?