Saturday, September 21, 2013
Sax Rohmer's Return of Sumuru
If Fu Manchu represented the Yellow Peril, the terrifying latent power of the East, then Sumuru represented the equally immense power of woman.
You can always rely on Rohmer to plunge the reader straight into the action, and this novel is no exception. A man inching his way home through a London blanketed in impenetrable fog suddenly notices there is a woman in his car, a woman who was not there before. A very attractive young woman. And then she is gone. But her pursuers are not far behind her.
The man is Dick Carteret and although he saw the woman for only a moment that was enough to plunge him into a terrifying adventure. The woman he saw was Coral Denvers, the daughter of an American millionaire and Sumuru’s latest victim.
Sumuru has many names. The name Sumuru is a legacy of one of her husbands, a Japanese baron now deceased. All of Sumuru’s husbands have been immensely wealthy, and all are deceased. Whether any of them died a natural death is uncertain but unlikely. All have contributed to Sumuru’s vast wealth although her own innate genius and natural aptitude for high finance have multiplied her wealth still further.
Sumuru is young and beautiful, and she has been young and beautiful for a very long time. Exactly how long no-one can say, and how she has remained young and beautiful is one of her mysteries. She is more than merely beautiful though. The fatal fascination she exerts over men is a combination of beauty, intelligence and inaccessibility. Every man wants Sumuru but no man can have her. Her fascination may well be enhanced by other means. She has some great scientists in her organisation and the researches they pursue are in tune with her interests, and her interests centre on power and control. Hypnotism, drugs and other mind control techniques are at her finger tips.
Sumuru controls an international organisation which aims at nothing less than world domination. Sumuru wants a world of perfect beauty, a world from which ugliness has been eliminated. What that means for anyone who fails to conform to Sumuru’s ideal of beauty can well be imagined. Sumuru also wants a world from which violence has been banished and she doesn’t care how many people she has to kill to achieve that objective.
The achievement of Sumuru’s objectives will require her to gain control over men, and in order to achieve that she must first control women. She achieves this through a combination of kidnappings, drugs and brain-washing but she also achieves it through the appeal of her philosophy to misguided idealistic people who are looking for something to believe in.
Dick Carteret is not going to take on Sumuru alone. His most reliable ally will be an American private detective named Drake Roscoe. Drake Roscoe has a personal interest in this struggle, he himself having been at one time one of Sumuru’s victims. These two men are trying to rescue two women (one of them being Coral Denvers) from Sumuru’s clutches. Their task is made more difficult by the fact that none of Sumuru’s victims could be described as being entirely willing but but that the same time none could be described as entirely unwilling either. Dick Carteret and Drake Roscoe will also be drawn into another of Sumuru’s current projects, her attempt to gain the enormous wealth of a prominent and powerful member of Egyptian’s ruling regime.
Dr Fu Manchu may have been an arch-villain, utterly ruthless and a relentless enemy of our civilisation, but he was no mere hoodlum. His belief in the rightness of his cause and its inevitable success was absolutely sincere. And he was a man of honour. There was nothing cheap about Dr Fu Manchu. You can say much the same of Sumuru. Her methods are as ruthless as Fu Manchu’s and she possesses something of the same terror of the fanatic but her beliefs are equally sincere. Someone once said that no great villain was a villain in his own eyes. A really successful fictional villain has to believe that he is in the right, just as the most frightening real-life villains believe in their own hearts and in their own minds that they are on the side of the angels. Sumuru has this quality. She wants power but she believes that once she gains power she will make the world a better place. The most terrifying people on Earth are people who believe they are going to make the world a better place.
Sumuru is a villain on an epic scale and she is a very seductive villain. She may even start to seduce the reader until some action of hers serves as a reminder of the fanaticism, the callousness and the madness of her plans.
It is tempting to see Sumuru as a response on the author’s part to feminism but I very much doubt that this was the case. I think it is much more likely that Sumuru was a metaphor for communism. Her objectives sound wonderful in theory but in practice they can lead to nothing but oppression and misery. Everything she is doing she is doing for our own good, whether we like it or not. And her appeal is particularly strong to the young and idealistic. Her followers believe they are working for a perfect world and they cannot see that a perfect world built on murder and coercion cannot be a perfect world; it can only be a perfect hell.
Rohmer had no literary pretensions but his style was as energetic and as electrifying as his stories. It’s all breathless excitement. It’s a style that works exceptionally well for the types of stories that he wrote. He might not have been the kind of writer who will ever find favour with literary critics but within his own sphere he demonstrated considerable skill. It may well be that the writing of effective thrillers requires at least as much skill as the writing of the tedious angst-laden tomes so dear to the hearts of the readers of The Times Literary Supplement.
What really set Rohmer apart from other writers of this type of fiction was the scale of his villains. Even their virtues were on the grand scale, and their vices were correspondingly even more grandiose. Rohmer’s villains set their sights so high that you cannot help feeling a grudging admiration for them. They may be evil but they are extraordinary; they are giants and their enemies seem pygmies in comparison. There is something tragic about their failures but balanced against this is the knowledge of the immense consequences for evil should they ever succeed.
Most of all Rohmer’s work is always entertaining. Highly recommended.