Monday, February 04, 2008

The Diminutive Peril

The Day the World Ended, by Sax Rohmer, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1930

Almost no one recognizes the name Sax Rohmer anymore (save current fans of The Mountain Goats), though his most enduring creation Dr. Fu-Manchu lives on in the popular imagination. While I can’t vouch for those novels, having never read them, it’s widely recognized that Fu-Manchu is one of the more pernicious racial caricatures of the generalized Yellow Peril fever that gripped those who believed in The White Man’s Burden.

What I can vouch for is that if The Day the World Ended is typical Rohmer, then as a writer he is one of the corniest hacks of the age, bestsellerdom notwithstanding. This book uses exclamation marks with an abandon even prolific for the times, slotting them in quite possibly just to break up typography. There were certainly enough to have made me suspect one per page at a minimum – or at least as an average. This is all too common in an earlier, more melodramatic age, our current literary trends going for such cool reserve that you’re lucky to see one exclamation mark save for ironic use.

The book begins with such forward momentum (and almost never gets out of fifth gear) that at first I was uncertain what was going on. Past names and cases were dropped willy-nilly by the narrator, one ace reporter Brian Woodville (whose name makes up the first sentence of the book, replete with “!”) that I mistakenly assumed I was in the midst of a tightly connected series. That feeling of missing something hadn’t departed by the fourth chapter, so a rather lengthy bit of googling cleared matters up.

Apparently, The Day the World Ended is a series, only Brian Woodville is not the series character, but rather a French detective by name of Gaston Max who only turns up (sans costume) late in the novel. In fact, we are treated to not one, not two, but three detectives in the course of this book which has at its heart a plot to eliminate something like 90% of the world’s population. Such a big job of preventing it falls to our heroes, Woodville, Max, and United States Secret Service Agent John Lonergan.

You may ask yourself why a United States Secret Service Agent would be involved in solving some particularly thorny mystery in post-World War One Germany – and you may ask in vein. Despite the duties posed herein, there is really no likely cause of such departmental involvement, and one suspects Rohmer’s British ignorance of American law enforcement bureaus naturally felt that “Secret Service” had a mysterious enough ring to it.

The villain of the piece turns out to be a dwarf, a genius dwarf bent on revenge against the whole world – one assumes for the kind of indignities typically suffered by dwarfs, one would imagine – but we never really get a compelling answer. This dwarf, who goes by the sinister handle Anubis, is merely depicted as a megalomaniac supergenius who wants space to rule the world with his hypnotic powers and his superior technology.

And what technology it is!

The secret weapon being perfected in the course of the book is a machine that transmits ultra high frequency sound waves that can’t be heard by humans, though it does have the power to somehow (the author is unclear here) kill people. Also unexplained is how these particular sound waves are capable of carrying the weight associated with the flying costumes Anubis has created. Meant to be worn but with the sinister appearance of enormous bats, these winged-suits are inexplicably carried aloft on sound waves allowing the henchman of the dwarf to terrorize the local town and feed the legends of vampires.

For it is vampires that Brian Woodville has come to investigate on behalf of the Daily World. After his thrilling adventures in Brazil up the Rio Negro “in quest of a white race said to survive far up a tributary” and his “fairly risky…Sahara trek,” his editors thought he was just the man to dig up the truth behind the rumors of the return of vampires to Baden Baden. The vampire angle is pretty soon worn pretty thin and consists of little more than a disembodied voice heard by all three of our detectives, the sighting of the giant bats (the flying costumes, rather), and a willowy, suspicious woman by name of Madame Ypres.

It’s a fairly ridiculous plot made even more laughable by Rohmer’s hyperventilating style of narrative. Gaston Max, the series detective of four adventures, never found the level of success that Fu-Manchu’s opponents, Commissioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (rather obvious rip-offs of Holmes and Watson) did, occurring as they did so in around a dozen novels. Of course, their names are almost as lost as Rohmer’s but nowhere near obscure as Gaston Max’s. This proto-Hercule Poirot is a bit of a French caricature as knowledgeable epicurean, though he tends toward absurdist ejaculations such as “Suffering Moses!” and “name of a small town!” (The latter is one of a series of bizarre Robinisms where the character changes up what “name” we are exclaiming in regards to, along the lines of “name of a small dog” and “name of a man disposed to shouting crazy phrases.”) His lack of enduring renown is unsurprising, as are Rohmer’s dated worldviews and literary stylings.

While Rohmer’s prose is heavily purpled with mysterious women and foreigners, a supergenius villain who plots world domination and/or destruction, bizarre plot devices that would embarrass better writers, an instantaneous romance between his hero and one of the mysterious women characters (seriously; after one night dancing, Woodville is prepared to risk death for Marusa who he at times suspects of being either a vampire or a robot), and the kind of hysteria of phrasing, The Day the World Ended reads briskly enough to be enjoyable. True, well over half the time you’re laughing at the author and his cadre of unlikely personality types and his clich├ęs (“This was my dream come true!”) or worse, but it beats boredom any day of the year.

***Last page of novel spoiler in comments for bonus hilarity.***

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