Arthur Henry Ward--that was apparently the mundane real name of the author best remembered by history under his pseudonym, “Sax Rohmer,” creator of the Chinese master criminal, facial-hair trendsetter, and later would-be U.S. dictator Dr. Fu-Manchu. Today would have been Ward’s 126th birthday, had he not died in 1959.
The novelist was born in Birmingham, England, in 1883 and published his first short story, “The Mysterious Mummy,” two decades later. He went on to pen music hall comedy sketches and magazine serials, before witnessing his first novel, Pause!, published (anonymously) in 1910. How Ward turned from all of that to composing thrillers about a diabolical Asian plotter and his nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, is a matter of some legend, recounted at the Books and Writers site:
In 1909 [the author] married Rose Elizabeth Knox, whose father had been a well-known comedian in his youth. When Rose Knox met Rohmer she was performing in a juggling act with her brother Bill. For almost two years they kept the marriage a secret from Rose’s family--she lived with her sister and Rohmer with his father. Rose was psychic and Rohmer himself seemed to attract metaphysical phenomena--according to a story, he consulted with his wife a Ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer was ‘C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N.’Ward/Rohmer’s earliest Fu-Manchu book, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (also known in the States as The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu), came out in 1913, introducing the reading public to his nefarious fictional Chinese poisoner, master manipulator, and “Yellow Peril” archetype. The writer was periodically derided for the racist stereotype represented by his tall, satanic protagonist; however, Fu-Manchu gained renown from his appearances not only in more than a dozen novels, but in about the same number of motion pictures, including a few early ones starring Swedish actor Warner Oland (who also headlined the Charlie Chan films). Comic books and novels written after Rohmer’s demise have kept the name of his evil genius alive.
The Fu-Manchu yarns made Ward/Rohmer one of the highest-paid writers of the early 20th century. But he also earned a following with his books about Paris police detective Gaston Max (The Yellow Claw; full text here), occult detective Moris Klaw (The Dream-Detective), and “witch of the world” Sumuru (“an ice-cold, fascinating genius whose hypnotic powers impelled all men to do her bidding”), as well as a variety of one-offs such as this week’s featured title, The Moon Is Red.
Moon was originally published in 1954, but the cover shown atop this post comes from a 1964 British paperback edition. The illustration on that jacket is credited to an artist known as “Michel,” but I don’t seem able to find any additional information about him on the Web. Nonetheless, it’s a stunning front, full of apparent innocence (represented by the raven-haired young lovely with the cavernous cleavage) and dark menace (symbolized of course by the minimally defined yet powerful-looking figure who is sneaking up behind her). The Moon Is Red isn’t a book in my collection, but it’s said to be “a multiple locked-room mystery with [a] fantasy resolution.” R.E. Briney, who was once editor of a fan magazine called The Rohmer Review, dubbed Moon “one of the best of Rohmer’s last novels.”
The back-jacket copy describes this novel as “a macabre tale of mystery and imagination” and provides us with a bit of its plot:
Florida lay under a shadow--the long shadow of murder. Who or what was responsible for the deaths of two women, savage reminders of killings elsewhere? In each case the crime appeared motiveless and committed by other than human agency.Non-human killers stalking the streets and hinterlands of Florida? No wonder that woman on The Moon Is Red looks a tad uneasy.
The Books and Writers site explains that, despite all of his work and enthusiasm for his stories, Rohmer’s financial security was short-lived: “He traveled with his wife in the Near East, Jamaica, and in Egypt, and built a country house called Little Gatton in the Surrey countryside. But the money went as fast as it had come--Rohmer’s business instincts were not good and he gambled away much of his earnings at Monte Carlo. In 1955 Rohmer was said to have sold the film, television and radio rights in his books for more than four million dollars.”
Four years later, this British novelist perished--rather ironically--during an outbreak of avian influenza, which was known better in his day as the Asian flu.
FOLLOW-UP: The wonderful blog Pulp Covers: The Best of the Worst identifies the artist responsible for this 1964 Digit Books cover of The Moon Is Red as Michel Johnson.
READ MORE: “‘Case of the Greek Room’ -- Sax Rohmer,” by Arun Kumar (The Ingenious Game of Murder).