Sax Rohmer Goes Ape

Sax Rohmer Goes Ape

Sax Rohmer The Moon is Red-smallThe Moon Is Red_2The Moon is Red was first published in the UK in hardcover by Herbert Jenkins in February 1954. A paperback edition from Digit Books followed in 1964. The first US edition was published by Bookfinger as a limited edition hardcover in January 1977. It was the last non-series Rohmer novel. While far from his best work in my view (the author was already 70 years old at the time of its writing), it is certainly of interest as a curio to devotees.

The late Rohmer scholar, Dr. Robert E. Briney (editor and publisher of The Rohmer Review) considered it the best of Rohmer’s last dozen books. In my view it is far inferior to Virgin in Flames (1952) and even less successful an effort than Bianca in Black (1958) which was written by (or at least credited to) the author’s wife. The authorship of those late period works has always been a matter of contention by fans. While Rohmer certainly never employed professional ghost writers, both his wife and his protégé and secretary, Cay Van Ash were indispensable to him in later years. Their names appear with his on a number of radio and television scripts he authored during this period. When questioned on the matter in the 1970s, Van Ash maintained he only served as a typist and did minor editing of manuscripts while the author’s widow stated her input was limited to discussing plot points and occasionally suggesting story ideas (she claimed the first Sumuru story was her original concept). Regardless, Rohmer’s best fiction of the 1950s was largely confined to the short story market as his full-length novels more evidently display the frailties of age and the passage of time to their overall detriment.

Mention was made in our recent article on Bianca in Black that Elizabeth Rohmer’s brother, Teddy Knox was a Music Hall and radio star as a member of the seminal comedy troupe, The Crazy Gang who were an influence on both The Goon Show and Monty Python in succeeding decades. Elizabeth’s other brother, Bill Knox had started as a juggler before finding a degree of success in variety shows throughout England and Europe. Once variety bookings dried up, Bill Knox settled for the remainder of his years in Miami where he performed in dinner theater. Sax and Elizabeth paid a visit to him in 1953. As was his habit, Rohmer made any location he visited the setting for his next novel. Bill Knox was fictionalized as Gene Marat, a former acrobat who leaves Europe and ends up in Florida playing quick-change artist to the delight of the dinner theater crowd.

Rue MorgueBastCassellThe Moon is Red concerns a series of shocking crimes committed by a serial killer stalking redheads along the East Coast of Florida. The initial suspect is Goliath, an escaped gorilla from a traveling circus who has displayed violent reactions to the color red in the past. The grisly crime scenes and manhunt through the Everglades for the gorilla recall Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1841 story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” which introduced the deductive genius of C. Auguste Dupin of the Surete (a character who was an acknowledged influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes). Rohmer emphasizes the Poe influence here, but was more interested in reworking his 1920 novel, The Green Eyes of Bast.

That title took the then-popular concept of were-animals (in this instance, a cat-woman) and used it as a blind to borrow liberally from H. G. Wells’ 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. The amoral Darwinian Doctor Greefe’s cross-breeding created the were-cat who believes she is under an ancient Egyptian curse in Rohmer’s 1920 novel. The Moon is Red features a back story concerning an amoral German pioneer in the field of artificial insemination, Dr. Von Reuter who had privately conducted a number of human and animal experiments in Jamaica some thirty years before resulting in the creation of a man with the savage tendencies of his gorilla forbears being at the heart of the mystery here.

The soul of The Moon is Red lies in the character of Lorry Wilding, a beautiful young American woman who is in danger of ending up an old maid much to the chagrin of her two spinster aunts. An aspiring author, Lorry is compelled to write a book about Gene Marat and his past upon meeting the European exile just as Rohmer felt after visiting his brother-in-law for the first time in decades. Lorry’s literary efforts remain lifeless on the printed page and she voices her frustration over her unpolished prose several times throughout the book. Considering Rohmer’s own sometimes clumsy narrative and evident insecurity in his abilities late in life, it is not much of a stretch to see the veteran author identifying with the troubled young ingénue he selected as his romantic lead.

Doubtless because of her literary ambitions, Lorry is far stronger than most damsels in distress in thriller fiction. Rohmer makes an effort, but his mystery is fairly transparent throughout (conventional detective stories were uncommon by him for that very reason). His narrative and prose are too rough to make for a pleasurable read at this late stage in his career. Nonetheless, The Moon is Red displays much of interest to longtime Rohmer readers if not the general mystery fan of the era.

William Patrick Maynard was licensed by the Sax Rohmer Literary Estate to continue the Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). The Triumph of Fu Manchu is coming soon from Black Coat Press.

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Thomas Parker

Please, please tell me that there’s an anthology titled, “Sax and Violence.”

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