Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forgotten Books Friday: The Dream-Detective

I first read Sax Rohmer’s The Dream -Detective in the late 1970s, when I was in my twenties. It was a Dover reprint of the 1926 edition, though the book itself came out in 1920. Before rereading it, I remembered it as enchanting. And, in some ways, it still is. The character of Moris Klaw is simply unforgettable. Here’s a description of him from the first episode of the book, “Tragedies in the Greek Room:”

“A very old man who carried his years lightly, or a younger man prematurely aged. None could say which. His skin had the hue of dirty vellum, and his hair, his shaggy brows, his scanty beard were so toneless as to defy classification in terms of colour. He wore an archaic brown bowler, smart, gold-rimmed pince-nez and a black silk muffler. A long, caped black coat completely enveloped the stooping figure; from beneath its mud-spattered edge peeped long-toed continental boots.”

A little further down the page:

“From the lining of his flat-topped hat he took out one of those small cylindrical scent-sprays and played its contents upon his high, bald brow. An odour of verbena filled the air.”

Moris Klaw is the proprietor of a curio shop in Wapping, in the East End of London, described in the second episode, “The Potsherd of Anubis:”

“Somewhere amid the misty gloom of this place, where the loot of a hundred ages, of every spot from pole to pole, veils its identity in the darkness, sits a large grey parrot. Faint perfumes and scuffling sounds tell of hidden animal life to the visitor; but the parrot proclaims itself stridently—

“’Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you!’”

And then there’s his daughter, Isis, as described in the second episode:

“He invoked a goddess, and a goddess appeared: a brilliantly beautiful brunette, with delightfully curved scarlet lips and flashing eyes, whose fire the gloom could not dim.”

In the first episode, Klaw sleeps at the scene of a crime, on his “odicallly sterilised” cushion, where he picks up the “etheric storm” unleashed by the last thoughts of the murdered man.

In my work in progress, Things Done and Left Undone, Helena McKechnie wears verbena perfume and bears some resemblance to Isis (though her connection to the ancient world is Persian, not Egyptian). The metaphysician Liane Thorvaldsen can discern people’s dreams. So I’m indebted to Rohmer.

But while Sax Rohmer (the pseudonym of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward), can create unforgettable characters and scenes, his plots are often stale unimaginative. The creator of the inscrutable Oriental villain, Dr. Fu Manchu, Rohmer can be just as stereotypical about other ethnic groups:

“It is wonderful, snake-like, the power of fascination some Hindus have over women—and always over blondes, Mr. Searles, always over blondes. It is a psychological problem.”
-Fifth Episode: “The Blue Rajah."

All right, I’m a little sensitive here because my blond daughter Sarah fell in love with and married a Hindu. And he’s simply a fine man. But then there are the greedy Jews in the Third Episode, “The Crusader’s Axe,”, and the “dagoes” of the Sixth Episode, “The Case of the Whispering Poplars.”
There are a few really original stories: Episode 4: "The Ivory Statue" and Episode 7: "The Headless Mummies" are certainly worth reading. Only the last episode, No. 9, "The Veil of Isis," really delves into the supernatural. It's by far the best story of the book. In spite of the title, Klaw's daughter does not appear in the episode, except in mention.

An excellent essay on The Dream-Detective can be found here.
I lifted the illustration from it.
In spite of the many stale plots and stereotyped villains, The Dream-Dectective gives us a truly original detective. And it's because of Moris Klaw that Rohmer's book deserves to be brought out of the netherworld of forgotten books.


Elizabeth said...

You've sold me on it, Steve, and I don't really read detective stories. Honestly, your writing is so special, persuasive and knowledgeable in a way that I can't quite put my finger on. I'm ready to read your book...

steve said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Some of my WIP is on my blog, under the label, "Dickens Challenge." The more updated version, or much of it, is in The Dickens Challenge Forum, which is administered by Lisa Kenney, of eudaemonia, who'd gladly give you access is you wanted. The first part of her novel, The Foundling Wheel, is there, as well. We may have some more works there in the near future.

Lilith des les Caves said...

I have never read this work, but it sounds intriguing. I must find a copy for my collection. I love explorations of philosophy blended with popular fiction. Cheers.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds quite magical. Thanks, Steve. Come back again.

David Cranmer said...

This sounds like a great read and the lines that jump out at me are "A very old man who carried his years lightly, or a younger man prematurely aged." Excellent. Thanks for the review.

steve on the slow train said...

Patty--Thank you for listing my review. I have ideas for some other books as well.

David--Welcome. Rohmer has some fine prose, but his plots and McGuffins are sometimes stale. Still, it's well worth reading.