My rating: 3.5/10
And all this time I thought it was merely a garden variety murder mystery!
The book’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years now. I’d heard it referenced as a mystery novel, and I was sort of saving it for the right time for such a mental amusement. I guess I’m just a little out of the loop.
Here’s Kirkus, from 1942, with the review I read after I put down the novel in bemusement partway through to do some further research.
Deep purple, in an uninhibited novel largely about sex, which wanders now and again into perversion, psychiatry, and Oriental eccentricities. The publishers claim affinity with D. H. Lawrence, which might be recognisable only in the very obviously exerted efforts of the characters to find physical passion. They are Nicholas, an English banker, whose wife Muriel had been consistently frigid; Sidonie, his secretary and paid mistress, who is aloof, baffling, and is revealed to have a cloven hoof; Saluby, a psychiatrist, who “awakens” Muriel, the result of which ricochets on Nicholas so that by the close, husband and wife find complete satisfaction in each other. Can only see one type of market – and one reason for reading it.
What an odd novel this one turned out to be.
It starts of traditionally enough, following staid English banker Nicholas Bude as he goes off home to the country for the weekend, only to discover things in a state of turmoil, due to the unexpected suicide of an estate employee’s daughter. Seems there was some sort of mental aberration going on, with the young woman apparently writing abusive anonymous letters to herself before her fatal breakdown.
Nicholas and the doctor in attendance – the saturnine Dr. Saluby – spend quite some time discussing this, with the result that Nicholas is prompted by Saluby to try a similar experiment upon himself.
We’re not quite sure what these fellows are actually trying to prove, but it sets the narrative up for some strenuous navel gazing on the part of Nicholas, while Dr. Saluby lurks stage left, rubbing his hands with glee for reasons a bit murky, though they might have something to do with Nicolas’s beautiful and (apparently) sexually frigid wife Muriel, who has become the focus of Dr. Saluby’s seductive gaze.
So far, so good. I was still thinking that the suicide would prove to be a key element in the puzzle, and that a clever whodunnit was yet in the offing, especially when Nicholas starts receiving his own series of anonymous letters, which may or may not be written to him by himself.
I couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, the novel abandons the sedate mystery format and morphs instead into an increasing torrid series of sexual situations. It’s a dirty novel!
Nicholas turns out to be having a long-running affair with his brilliant Oxford-educated secretary, Sidonie, a stunningly beautiful and deeply secretive blond with a strange physical deformity. He and Sidonie indulge in a rough sexual interlude every Monday evening, reaching “mutual satisfaction” after each bedroom encounter involving Sidonie refusing to let her hair down or (hint, hint!) reveal her bare feet. She bites Nicholas arousingly – and apparently quite viciously, for she frequently draws blood! – and he always leaves her an envelope of money on his way out, which she then mails off to an orphanage.
Surely there is some mystery plot developing with this scenario? Is there some clue in Sidonie’s habit of serious nipping? In the orphanage connection?
Nope. Not at all. Purely random.
Meanwhile, back in the country, Muriel finds herself the target of Dr. Saluby’s amorous advances. She experiences a sexual awakening of sorts, leading to much discussion about the emotional dangers of repressing one’s erotic desires in order to adhere to societal expectations. Apparently Muriel and Nicholas should have let their passions flow early on in their engagement, instead of waiting for the marriage ceremony.
The premise is that Muriel has buried her natural impulses so deeply that she is unable to access them when she finally has official permission to do so. But once these come to the surface, thanks to Dr. Saluby’s selfishly chauvinistic love-making, the newly aroused Muriel starts looking around with wild surmise.
After a brief interlude with another doctor, a gorgeous Scottish he-man sort who is quick to seize the opportunity of an afternoon’s lovemaking with the newly receptive Muriel, she spurns Dr. Saluby and sets her sights on seducing her own husband, whom she was initially attracted to by his passionate nature and “powerful hands”. (There is a whole sub-plot involving Nicholas’s hands which I won’t get into here, as this is already getting too darned long.)
With the help of a homemade pair of green silk, crotchless leggings and the lavish application of red lipstick to various key bits of her body, Muriel catches Nicholas’s attention and husband and wife finally find their sexual groove after ten years of disappointing marital “duty sex”.
Nicholas, Muriel, and Sidonie then get together in a mutual reconciliation session, followed by explanations of all the bemusements. Though I rather expected them all to end up in bed together, the author spares us this. Thank you, Mr. Connell.
The anonymous letter thing gets cleared up, sort of, though we never do get a satisfactory explanation regarding the original suicide which set the wheels of this novel in motion.
Still with me, and still curious about this odd little period piece?
Here’s a link to the only other review I could find in my not-very-strenuous internet search. Dan Stump writes a good review in Mystery File , referencing The Chinese Room‘s subsequent movie adaptation, and its status as something of a cult classic of its erotic-pulp-fiction genre.
Another link to the 1966 film, with a brief biographical note on the author at the very bottom.
Remember the reference to D.H. Lawrence in the Kirkus review? Vivian Connell deserves a mildly favourable comparison to DHL, as The Chinese Room did contain a fair bit of decent writing and some interesting musings on the inner lives of its characters, but, sadly, the gratuitous and increasingly frequent semi-explicit sex scenes ruined what might instead have been something of a higher literary standing.
The Chinese Room was surprisingly successful, going into numerous editions and selling over three million copies. Perhaps this had something to do with its instant notoriety due to its American recall in 1942 by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, who demanded the censorship of a certain phrase before it could be allowed back into general circulation.
My particular edition is the original, and I would be hard pressed to identify which particular phrase that was. There’s quite a lot of questionable stuff herein, blush-inducing, indeed, though mostly because of the awkwardness of the writing and the ridiculousness of the scenarios versus anything too wildly explicit in the way of sexual detail. Pornographic it isn’t, if one applies the dictionary definition.
The Chinese Room was Vivian Connell’s most commercially successful book, though he was also a playwright, and was apparently involved in the Hollywood movie industry. He did go on to write a number of other, apparently even more risqué novels. I rather think, from the “serious” bits of The Chinese Room, that he would have liked to be viewed as a more mainstream writer, and he might indeed have made it, for there is evidence of a certain competence of thought and phrasing and even flashes of brilliance here and there. Doomed by those intrusive sex scenes, though.
Ah, well. So close, but yet so far…
Though The Chinese Room ultimately disappointed me, I suspect I’d snap up any reasonably-priced Connells found while browsing the pulp fiction shelves in future. (Say, $5 maximum, though $2 would be better.)
Don’t you find these representative covers strangely curiousity-inducing?! “A lost weekend – of women”. Huzzah!
Other titles to be aware (or beware) of:
A Man of Parts, 1950. “A tempestuous novel of the London stage, its greatest lover, and the women caught in the tempest.”
Bachelors Anonymous, 1956. “For David Young, life was a lost weekend of dames. In a word, he was a love lush. He could fake out the boss on most hangovers, until ‘one too many’ happened to be a client’s wife. And then it was go on the wagon or else. But how, when a guy can’t break the habit? And then the club came to the rescue…”
September in Quinze, 1952. Published later in paperback as The Naked Rich. “Set on the French Riviera, a world of sybaritic luxury, violence, self-indulgence, loneliness and sometimes even love.” Bonus dust jacket blurb:
He stood in the street disguised in a pair of old trousers and a shirt that bared his massive chest. His eyes dwelled feverishly on the woman standing beneath a lampost. Of all the women in France tonight he desired only this tawny-haired, dark-eyed female. “Do you know what I want from you?” he asked. She nodded and led him silently to her apartment. From the window they could see the yacht of the fabulous King Sadook, its royal flag fluttering. “Do you want a king tonight?” he whispered. She shook her head. Her single garment fell away. “I want a man,” she told him simply. He laughed and said “I’ll give you both!”.
The Golden Sleep, 1948. “More daring than The Chinese Room!”
Monte Carlo Mission, 1954. “Vivian Connell, master of the sophisticated suspense novel, brings you his finest in Monte Carlo Mission. Meet Corinna Lang, a goddess of the movies, who was bored with mammoth swimming pools, small MGs, fat directors, and slim leading men. Bored with the whole great golden illusion of Hollywood, this smart cookie decides a mere vacation in Monte Carlo would be just too tame. She’s looking for adventure, and has the right amount of moxie and courage to take advantage of it when she finds it! Take a journey with this enchanting heroine to the wicked, extravagant Riviera where the golden Corinna, undertaker of a top secret mission, lives in the shadow of international intrigue, and matches her quick wit with the most dangerous men in Europe.”