Richard Mason (novelist 1919–1997)
This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (March 2011)
Richard Mason (16 May 1919 – 13 October 1997) was a British novelist. His novels usually concerned Britons' experiences in exotic foreign locations, especially in Asia.
Born into a middle-class family in Hale, near Manchester, he was educated at The Downs Malvern, a private boarding school, from September 1928 through 1933. There he studied under poet W. H. Auden and at the age of 14 authored a juvenile novel (criticized by Auden as “no good” and now lost). His later novels allude to school hazing, and a fictional character mentions a painful separation from his mother, incidents that may give some flavor of his experiences there. (The Downs, in Malvern, which he entered at the age of 8, was situated quite far from Hale.)
He received his secondary school education in Dorset, at Giggleswick School and Bryanston School (1933–36) and published articles in the local press and a film magazine from 1933 through 1938. After a stint working for the British Council, he entered service in the RAF and served from 1939 through 1944. After learning Japanese in a crash course taken in India, he served as an interrogator of prisoners of war in India and Burma while attached to the 14th Army as an intelligence officer. Some of these experiences found fictional expression in his first, pseudonymous novel, The Body Fell on Berlin (1943), written as Richard Lakin (Lakin appears as his middle name in the German edition of The World of Suzie Wong).
In 1948 he eloped with and married Anne Cumming, who had previously been married to Henry Landall Lyon Young. Richard and Felicity Mason separated in 1958 and were later divorced. Cumming was notoriously a sexual free spirit, who was best known in avant garde literary circles. The two traveled through most of the countries of Europe, and logged 8,000 miles of travel in Africa in a second-hand car.
In the 1960s he restored an apartment in Rome and went on to raise sheep on an estate in Wales with his second wife, Sarett Rudley, a television mystery writer best known for a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents teleplays. He was to remain close friends with both ex-wives.
In the early 1970s, Mason returned to Rome, where he met his third wife Margot (“Maggie”) Wolf in 1972, with whom he had a son, Theo, and a daughter, Jessica. The couple were popular hosts, and Mason worked on his sculpting from a rooftop workshop and garden. “After Suzie, the ideas just wouldn’t come. The book has been good for us, like an inheritance, really. We’re not rich, but we live comfortably,” Mason remarked in an extremely rare 1988 interview.
A cigarette smoker, he died  of throat cancer/lung cancer in Rome, Italy. He is interred at the Cimitero Acattolico (near Percy Shelley), where his headstone is inscribed with the words “Though on the sign it is written: ‘Don't pluck these blossoms’—it is useless against the wind, which cannot read.” (This passage from an unattributed Japanese poem also opens The Wind Cannot Read.)
His second novel, The Wind Cannot Read, appeared in 1946, followed by another pseudonymous mystery novel Angel Take Care (also written as Richard Lakin, 1947). Both of the mysteries are exceptionally literate and ingenious; they remain interesting sketches of the time and place in which they’re set.
The Wind Cannot Read was written in India between February and May 1944, sometimes in temperatures over 100 degrees, after the day’s duties. It was based partly on his wartime experiences learning Japanese and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1948. Mason also wrote the screenplay for the 1958 film version, starring Dirk Bogarde. Many of the themes of love transcending cultural boundaries, also developed in The World of Suzie Wong, make their first appearance here. The novel and film were sufficiently successful that Mason was able to devote himself entirely to writing and travel, including visits to the Caribbean and Polynesia.
His next novel The Shadow and the Peak, set in Jamaica, was filmed in 1958 as Passionate Summer (alternately titled "Storm over Jamaica"). In this time frame Mason also produced films and wrote several scripts. With W.P. Lipscomb, he wrote the screenplay for the 1956 film version of Nevil Shute's novel "A Town Like Alice."
Mason’s observations while living in Hong Kong inspired him to write his best-known book, The World of Suzie Wong (1957), a tale of an artist’s surprisingly tender romance with a Hong Kong prostitute. It became a bestseller and added a somewhat controversial expression, “Suzie Wong” (a seductive East Asian woman), to the English language. It was adapted into a 1958 Broadway play starring William Shatner and France Nuyen and the 1960 film The World of Suzie Wong, starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan. It was Kwan’s first film role.
The first draft of the novel was written in Hong Kong in just three months in 1956, but upon returning to England he felt he had been too close to what he'd been writing and put the manuscript away in a cabinet. Putting this draft behind him, he rewrote the entire novel from scratch over the course of a year.
The primary setting is a hotel brothel called Nam Kok, based on the actual Luk Kwok hotel where Mason himself stayed. (The hotel has since been replaced by an upscale concrete and glass construction that bears no resemblance.) The novel’s tremendous success owes much to keen psychological insight, a strength apparent in all of Mason’s novels, deft characterization, and the unfolding of a love story that explores the many difficulties inherent in a relationship between a respectable British artist and a Hong Kong prostitute, forced into the trade from economic necessity. (China had been embroiled in a turbulent civil war compounded by Japanese invasion in the period immediately preceding the events of the novel.) The psychological pressures bearing upon the essentially conservative Suzie, and the social consequences for her lover Robert Lomax are particularly well developed. Mason, however, felt that the novel fell short of its full potential and would have been stronger had it devoted more attention to life as it was actually lived in Hong Kong.
The film differs significantly from the novel in a number of ways (Lomax, for example, is transformed into an American, a major character is omitted altogether, and Suzie’s travails with the legal system and health make no appearance). However, filmed on location, it is full of visual interest and stands on its own dramatically. Mason himself thought well of the film except for the performance of Holden, whom he felt was nothing like Lomax, and “more like an American banker.”
Mason's 1962 espionage novel The Fever Tree was set in India and Nepal. Written in 1961 with the help of Sarett, while working in creative isolation on Elba, it was to be his last. From this point forward he lived entirely on royalties earned from his publications and films and spent time learning sculpting from the Rome-based artist Robert Cook.
- The Body Fell on Berlin, 1943 (as Richard Lakin)
- The Wind Cannot Read, 1946; screenplay 1958
- Angel Take Care, 1947 (as Richard Lakin)
- The Shadow and the Peak, 1949
- The World of Suzie Wong, 1957
- The Fever Tree, 1962
- "A lecture to the Royston Pike group: Part 2", The Elmbridge Hundred.
- Richard Davenport-Hines, "Cumming, (Felicity) Anne (1917–93)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2009, accessed 12 April 2017.
- Richard Mason 78 Suzie Wong author
- "Lazy, Yet Obliged to Write", V. R. J. Clinton, Books and Bookmen, August, 1957.