Few guilty pleasures in life are more delicious than immersion into the delirious, pulpy universe of Sax Rohmer.
Born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (1883–1959) in Birmingham to a working class family, Rohmer initially toiled as a public servant before becoming a writer. Rohmer was an incredibly well-read man and amateur Egyptologist; he also was a working writer in every sense of the term, knocking out magazine articles and comedy sketches.
Rohmer published several stories and a novel before really hitting his stride in 1913 with the publication of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. This novel was actually a collection of several inter-connected short stories, strung together by one over-arching narrative thrust: secret agent Nayland Smith and his comrade Dr. Petrie working to rid the world of an evil criminal mastermind bent on taking over the world. The next two novels in the series, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Hand of Fu-Manchu, were also short stories strung together. When Rohmer revived the series in 1931, with Daughter of Fu Manchu, he turned to full-novel form. Some of these later novels are the best in the series (such as the Trail of Fu Manchu), but the sustained narrative structures does seem to knock the wind out of some of them.
Rohmer also wrote several different series of detective novels, featuring such characters as Gaston Max and Morris Klaw (who featured largely in supernatural mysteries). Rohmer was one of the most well-paid thriller writers of his generation, and for laughs would sometimes sign his name $ax Rohmer. He and his wife moved to New York after World War II and he died in 1959 from avian flu. His wife, along with his assistant, Cay Van Ash, wrote a splendid biography of the man in 1972, called, appropriately, Master of Villainy. (Ash also wrote two Fu Manchu novels of his own, one featuring Sherlock Holmes, and they are equal to those of Rohmer.)
It’s hard to imagine the full impact of Rohmer’s legacy today, after Fu Manchu has been watered down by countless imitators and the tides of political correctness. However, it’s safe to say that without Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, there would have been no James Bond, as author Ian Fleming had said that Rohmer’s novels were a key influence on his style and his decision to become a writer. Many of the tropes that were invented or perfected by Rohmer have become today’s clichés, and the debt the thriller genre owes him is immeasurable.
Part of the great fun to be had by reading Rohmer is his fevered emotional pitch, the heavily scented style of his prose, and the sheer momentum of his narrative. There are two other key ingredients of Rohmer’s charm. First, nearly everything a reader comes across in his novels – no matter how outlandish – is usually real. If Rohmer says there’s an 18 inch poisonous centipede, rest assured, there is one. Another key is Rohmer’s commitment to his story and his characters – this man believed. There is never a hint of irony, never less than his 100% commitment as an artist. He may not have been writing literature, but he wrote it as if he was.
He was also a master of description. Here, for example, is there first time the world knew of Fu Manchu: Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government--which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.
My affection for Rohmer came flooding back to me during a recent reading of his sublimely lurid The Quest of the Sacred Slipper, first published serially in Short Stories Magazine and collected into novel form in 1919. Sacred Slipper is available for free from the invaluable manybooks.net and Project Gutenberg. Seekers after vintage shivers need go no further.
How to describe The Quest of the Sacred Slipper? Pure purple romance. It starts with our narrator, a newspaper man named Cavanagh, inheriting responsibility for a Muslim holy relic, the Slipper of the Prophet (once worn by Allah himself) after the man who uncovered it, Prof. Deeping, is murdered. Two factions are after it – a league of Muslim assassins called the Hashishin, and a celebrated American cracksman named Earl Dexter (also called The Stetson Man for his taste in hats). The Hashishin are led by the murderous Hassan of Aleppo, and leave a trail of severed hands and dead men as they and Dexter pursue the slipper, with Cavanagh and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Bristol always one step behind.
All of this is delivered in a delirious, ornate, heavily scented style; as if Oscar Wilde and Ian Fleming collaborated on a thriller while drinking too much absinthe.
Of course, many readers will snort at the Hashishin – ritualistic Muslim murderers who smoke hashish before committing their crimes. But remember, it’s Sax Rohmer we’re writing of here, so it’s no surprise that the Hashishin actually existed after a fashion, and that the word “assassin” actually derives from the same root. And for Rohmer to have anticipated murderous Muslim fanatics roaming London fully 90 years before it actually happened adds additional irony to the notion that he was a mere pulpy romance writer. (I often think of Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar/The Saint, who wrote that World War II showed that writers of “Yellow Peril” fiction for the 20 years previous might have been onto something.)
Here’s a taste of some of the incensed delights to be found in the Golden Slipper:
All that I knew of the weird group of fanatics – survivals of a dim and evil past – who must now be watching this cottage as bloodlustful devotees watch a shrine violated, burst upon my mind. I peopled the still blackness with lurking assassins, armed with the murderous knowledge of by-gone centuries, armed with invisible weapons which stuck down from afar, supernaturally.
Or: Many relics have curious histories, and the experienced archaeologist becomes callous to that uncanniness which seems to attach to some gruesome curios. But the slipper of the Prophet was different. No mere ghostly menace threatened its holders; an avenging scimitar followed those who came in contact with it; gruesome tragedies, mutilations, murders, had marked its progress throughout.
No one would argue that Sax Rohmer was a great writer, or that his novels enter the elevated realms of high art. But he did do something no thriller writer was ever able to pull off – he wrote trash that could be savored by aesthetes.