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Re-Discovering Sax Rohmer

Friday, August 3rd, 2012 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

rohmer-the-green-spiderrohmer-the-leopard-couchRegular readers of my articles will be aware of my fascination with the works of British thriller writer, Sax Rohmer. Along with penning several series of articles, I was fortunate enough to be authorized by Rohmer’s estate to write two new Fu Manchu thrillers for Black Coat Press in an effort to bring new readers to the originals. For several decades, Rohmer’s work has been largely out of print and much of it has fallen into obscurity. Happily, this has recently started to change.

Last year, Titan Books licensed Rohmer’s catalog and began an ambitious reprint series at the start of this year, beginning with Rohmer’s fourteen Fu Manchu titles. All of the books are being printed in affordable trade paperback editions. The first three titles are available at present and the next two may be pre-ordered from Amazon. These attractive uniform editions recall the lurid retro cover art on Penguin’s recent trade paperback editions of Ian Fleming’s fourteen James Bond thrillers.

Of course, while the Devil Doctor may have been Rohmer’s most famous work, it doesn’t even come close to scraping the surface of this prolific author’s voluminous output. While Titan is committed to bringing his many novels back into print, Rohmer has several dozen uncollected stories that were published exclusively in magazines and newspapers in the first half of the last century. Tom Roberts’ Black Dog Books have made an indelible mark by launching their Sax Rohmer Library series. Rohmer scholar Gene Christie has begun compiling several collections of rare early material, much of which is otherwise unavailable and would have likely remained lost without his efforts.

The Green Spider collects some of Rohmer’s finest early efforts from “The Mysterious Mummy”(1903), which predated the creation of Dr. Fu Manchu by nearly a decade, to the eerie title story from 1904. Christie also unearthed a pair of rare finds from the following year, “The Mystery of the Marsh Hole” and “Who Was the Rajah?” and a real curio from 1906, “The McVillin.” The highlights of the book are two of Rohmer’s finest early mysteries, “The Sedgley Abbey Tragedies” and “The Death of Cyrus Pettigrew,” both from 1909; the classic “The Secret of Holm Peel” from 1912; a solid haunted house tale, “The Haunting of Low Fennel,” and a rare Nayland Smith story without Dr. Fu Manchu, “The Blue Monkey” are both from 1920; the excellent Paul Harley story, “The Dyke Grange Mystery,” is from 1922. The collection is rounded out with two early Fu Manchu episodes before they were slightly edited for book publication.

altuspress-crimemagnetdaughteroffumanchuThe Leopard Couch is the second volume in this excellent series and features an introduction by F. Paul Wilson, a fitting choice even if the author is blissfully unaware of much of Rohmer’s work. Most readers will feel the same way encountering Black Dog’s companion volume of early obscure stories, starting with the title story, an early find from 1904; “A House Possessed” from 1912 is another ghost story; while “That Black Cat” from 1914 offers a more assured treatment of familiar gothic material of the day; four of the best stories herald from 1916, “The Haunted Temple,” “The Red Eye of Vishnu,” “The Cardinal’s Stair,” and “In the Valley of the Sorceress.” This quartet shows Rohmer having reached his early peak; “The Valley of the Just” (1917) and “The Curse of a Thousand Kisses” (1918) maintain a high standard of quality while the rare Paul Harley mystery, “Red Mist” (1919) is my choice for the best in the collection. 1920’s “The Hand of the White Sheikh” is another standout. Christie selects an excerpt from Rohmer’s occult classic, Brood of the Witch Queen (slightly rewritten for newspaper serialization), as well as one of the excellent tales of his psychic investigator Morris Klaw previously collected in the now rare title, The Dream Detective.

Two more volumes in this excellent series are due soon. Christie has compiled all of Rohmer’s non-fiction writings on the occult to be packaged alongside his classic 1914 study, The Romance of Sorcery (the author’s only book-length work of non-fiction). The Black Dog Books edition will be unabridged, happily, but the real selling point for aficionados will be a chance to read the rare unedited preface to R. Watson Councell’s Apologia Alchymiae, a coveted collector’s item for students of the occult, dating from 1925. Councell was the Rohmer family physician who introduced the author into at least one secret society and provided a great deal of background material for his fiction.

The fourth title from Black Dog is even more significant, a collection of rare Paul Harley mysteries entitled The Voice of Kali. While this volume repeats two of the Harley tales that appeared in the first two volumes (“The Dyke Grange Mystery” and “Red Mist”), it more than compensates by reprinting the extremely rare 1923 short novel that gives the collection its title as well as a second excellent short novel from 1922, “The Black Mandarin,” that has been out of print for far too long. The collection also includes three excellent Harley stories from 1920: “The Man with the Shaven Skull,” “The House of the Golden Joss,” and “The White Hat.” Those who only know the character from Rohmer’s middling 1921 novels, Bat-Wing and Fire-Tongue are in for a pleasant surprise and would do well to seek out the collection, Tales of Chinatown for more prime early Harley tales (as well as several excellent Red Kerry stories).

tears-of-our-lady1sumuruHappily, Tom Roberts and Gene Christie aren’t the only sympathetic publisher and Rohmer scholar duo to have pooled their efforts to the benefit of fans. George Vanderburgh’s Battered Silicon Dispatch Box and John Robert Colombo have teamed to produce The Sumuru Omibus, a gorgeous hardcover folio edition of the five Sumuru novels Rohmer wrote in the 1950s. Best of all, Colombo utilized the original British text as the source. Rohmer’s American publisher made a number of unfortunate changes to the text (as well as the titles) going so far as to alter the ending of one of the books. Colombo proves he is an all too willing servant of Fu Manchu’s female counterpart with his second Rohmer effort for Vanderburgh, a collectible chapbook compiling all of Sumuru’s sayings in a recreation of Tears of Our Lady, the fabled title mentioned several times in the series as a rare privately-printed collectible that all of Sumuru’s followers possess. Both titles are ones Rohmer fans must seek directly from the publisher’s website if they wish to add them to their collections.

The unexpected eleventh hour miracle was Will Murray and Altus Press’ recent publication (with the full cooperation of the Rohmer Estate) of The Complete Cases of the Crime Magnet. The character appeared in numerous stories that have never before appeared in book form. When they were adapted by BBC radio during the Second World War, they were rewritten to feature Rohmer’s better known French detective, Gaston Max, instead. I am greatly looking forward to reading the fifteen stories and short novel collected within the pages of what is undoubtedly the most significant Rohmer title in nearly forty years.

Most amazing is the fact that much of the material Black Dog Books, Altus Press, and Battered Silicon Dispatch Box have brought to the fore was unavailable to collectors as recently as three years ago, when my first Fu Manchu book was published. Do yourself a favor and pay a visit to Amazon or the publisher’s website or look for their tables at PulpFest in Columbus, Ohio, next week. You cannot go wrong in getting your hands on these seminal masterworks of pulp fiction from a writer who is finally beginning to be rediscovered by mystery lovers a century after his most famous creation made his unforgettable debut.


William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu was published earlier this year by Black Coat Press. Next up is a collection of short stories featuring an Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com

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