The Dream Detective by Sax Rohmer, London: Jarrolds, 1920; New York: Doubleday, 1925.
Moris Klaw is an anomaly, at least among Occult Detectives: a truly memorable character in want of a worthy narrative. Though drawn with broad strokes, Klaw is eccentric and temperamental; his unusual speech pattern indicates a foreign but unspecified nationality (though he has an affinity for Paris, there is nothing conclusive); his high forehead, straggly hair, wispy beard, and yellowish skin, all set off by a pince nez are a far cry from the lantern jawed heroes of the day. He’s a large man who tends to shuffle “ungainly” and usually makes his appearance in a black cape coat, with a flat top bowler hat from inside of which he frequently retrieves a spray bottle of verbena to mist across his brow for refreshment. He has a beautiful daughter, Isis, as his assistant. (No mention is ever made of Mrs. Klaw.) And he operates out of a shabby curio shop in London‛s East End, where a parrot alerts him to visitors with the call, “Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you.”
His particular technique for solving crimes, not always employed, is to sleep at the scene of the crime, allowing the ‛odic forces‛ to imprint themselves on his mind like light on a photographic plate. This mental photograph relates to the thoughts present in the criminals mind at the moment when he (or she) is most focused on the commission of the crime.
Unfortunately, the crimes he is given to solve would have to rise several notches in quality to approach the mundane. It‛s enough to push the otherwise intriguing Mr. Klaw to the outer edges of the Occult Detective circle (or pentacle, if you prefer.) Frustratingly, in the last of the ten stories, the narrator indicates that Klaw has dealt with occult/supernatural cases, but “I have refrained from including them because readers of this paper would be unlikely to appreciate the nature of Klaw’s investigations outside the sphere of ordinary natural laws.”
Sax Rohmer, the pen name of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, was of course the creator of Fu Manchu, that politically incorrect archetype of the Yellow Peril, as well as author of numerous other mysteries with occult and oriental themes. Ward was an ardent occultist who rubbed elbows with fellow authors like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He wrote a nonfiction book on occultism, The Romance of Sorcery, which Lovecraft had read, though what influence it might have had is unknown to me.
I haven‛t read a Fu Manchu novel in over thirty years, but judging by The Dream Detective series, Ward was a mediocre storyteller with a slight gift for character (though in DD all but Klaw are cardboard at best) and atmosphere. The ten stories, which originally appeared in the New Magazine over the course of 1913, all have what I suppose you could call rational solutions in that, with one equivical exception, none are supernatural. But their credibility ranges from strained to unsustainable. In the “Case of the Ivory Statue”, a life sized marble statue apparently vanishes while the sculptor‛s back is turned, literally in a matter of seconds. The solution (should I say spoiler alert?): the statue was stolen hours before, and the live model who posed for the work sat in the pose unnoticed until she could make her getaway. And the purpose of the theft was to obtain a jewel-encrusted antique girdle that had been firmly affixed to the statue, and required time to remove. Aside from the fact that the criminal had to presumably make a reasonable duplicate of the girdle for the model, anyone who has ever tried to lift a life-sized piece of marble would know that you don‛t just trot into a studio and haul it to a waiting cab by yourself, as Rohmer has him do.
In the “Case of the Blue Rajah”, the famous diamond is stolen out from under the noses of eight reputable businessmen in a locked room. The solution is so telegraphed, not to mention simplistic, that it diminishes Klaw by making him seem only normal in a crowd of dunces. The thief turns out to be the Hindu who was selling the jewel for the Gaekwar of Nizam (is there such a thing as a Gaekwar?). His accomplice was a young English lady whom he had promised to marry, which leads to this jaw-dropping assertion:
“He had only been in London six months,” Moris Klaw rumbled in my ear, “and you see, she adored him — helped him to steal. It is wonderful, snakelike, the power of fascination some Hindus have over women – and always over blondes, Mr. Searles, always blondes. It is a psychological problem.”
“The Case of the Veil of Isis” -not Klaw’s daughter, but the Egyptian goddess– involves some occult phenomena, but throughout, Klaw and Searles, the narrator, are merely witnesses to someone else’s mania. There is no crime, there is no mystery, there really isn’t much of a story at all, which makes it all the more disappointing.
Klaw is a near contemporary of Hodgson‛s Carnacki, those stories having appeared between 1910 and 1912 in The Idler magazine, and which came out in book form in 1913. The bar had been set quite high, and though Klaw seems perfectly capable of reaching it, his author was not up to the task.
The Dream Detective was not issued in hardback until 1920 in England, and not until 1925 in America, though four of the stories appeared in All-Story Cavalier Weekly in early 1925.
And on another note..
The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ash Tree Press, 2000
Apart from a handful of M.R.. James tales, I‛ve not read many ghost stories. I‛m not even sure why I picked this volume off my library shelf when there are so many other worthy books awaiting my attention. (As Harlan Ellison said, who wants a library full of books you‛ve already read?) But I did, and it is worth sharing.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a popular Victorian author, and The Cold Embrace collects eighteen of her weird tales, most but not all ghost stories. They span the years 1871-1896, so there is a clear and steady development of writing style. Literary conventions and expectations were different 130 years ago, and what may have been a thrilling twist then now seems predictable and wan. The first couple of stories were, in fact, disappointing. I might have stopped reading then and there, except for the fact that I found I was enjoying Ms. Braddon‛s company immensely. Although there are no shivers here for those who‛ve faced down Poe and Lovecraft and King, The Cold Embrace is a pleasant read, and after all, the magic of all engaging literature and art is that communication of a personality across distance and, more awe-inspiring still, across time.