The Dream Detective
by Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was the pen name of one Arthur Sarsfield Ward (among other variations of his name) and he was certainly best known for his many pulp adventures documenting the fiendish plots of his most famous character, Dr. Fu Manchu. I read all of those a decade or more ago and, I have to say, they weren’t anything like I'd imagined and were, indeed, fun adventures in the boy’s own adventure mode, to a great extent. This is the first time I’ve read anything of his not featuring that character and I have to say that, while I am somewhat disappointed that this selection of nine short stories comprising The Dream Detective, first published in 1920, doesn’t go quite as far into the realm of what I would doggedly call ‘fantastical fiction’ as I would have liked, the concept is certainly sound enough to reach such a classification and ultimately, I did enjoy reading about the central character in this compendium. That central character being Moris Klaw, the titular detective of dreams who is often accompanied in his investigations (apart from the ninth and final one in this tome), by his beautiful daughter Isis Klaw.
Each short, chaptered tale is called “Case of...” and then the specific case name. So in the case of this 1977 Dover Publications edition, they are the nine stories which were in the first British edition published in 1920 and are as follows... 1. The Tragedies In The Greek Room, 2. Potsherd Of Anubis, 3. The Crusader’s Axe, 4. The Ivory Statue, 5. The Blue Rajah, 6. The Whispering Poplars, 7. The Headless Mummies, 8. The Haunting Of Grange and 9. The Veil Of Isis. Now, it pains me to say that I wasn’t aware, when I managed to source a second hand copy of this book, that the US 1925 edition (and only that particular edition from what I can find out), included a tenth short story but, alas, I don’t think I am able to pick up one of these, almost antiquarian, copies for a reasonable (aka cheap) price. Why the tenth story has not seen the light of day since the 1925 edition is something I am unsure of although, I could hazard a guess at one or two possibilities.
Just like Holmes had his chronicler, Dr. Watson, Moris Klaw has his own biographer and, just like the Conan Doyle stories, it is his acquaintance who takes on the narrative voice of the stories. We hear everything from him first hand as a witness to Klaw’s exploits, after he meets this almost unique character in the first tale, The Tragedies In The Greek Room. I say unique because, okay, like Holmes the character is a master criminologist but that is not what gives this character the little something extra which makes this volume worth a look. By trade, Moris Klaw is an owner of a positively grubby antique shop stuffed to the gills with bizarre and archaic items, which he runs with his daughter and a drunken shop assistant. However, his interests in the realm of the supernatural and his study of an inexhaustible catalogue of the properties of rare and ancient archeological artefacts are the perfect companion to his prime talent... that of his belief and practical application of the mind’s ability, if properly trained, to read the psychic impressions left in the aether of a particular place.
That is to say, with the aid of his sterilised pillows, he will lay down at the scene of a crime for an hour or a night and lay open to the very clear psychic impressions left in a location by a thief or murderer (or, indeed, dead victim) and this will go some way in showing him what has happened and where best to uncover the evidence which will solve the mystery for the local police, one of whom sometimes impresses the narrator to persuade Klaw to involve himself in the stranger of the cases which come their way.
The stories will usually start off with either a baffling puzzle such as a traditional ‘locked room mystery’ or a beguiling mystery, such as the proposition of whispering voices in the night or the bizarre motivation of someone who will break into museums and private collections to decapitate the heads of specific mummified Egyptians... and then Klaw will spend some time, for the most part, napping at the crime scene... and then pursue his theories with the aid of his daughter and the narrator. My main disappointment is that, like the ending of a good Scooby Doo cartoon, he will more often than not reveal to the people investigating the mysterious crimes that, despite his somewhat supernatural powers in acquiring ‘dream photographs’ of the various shenanigans, the crimes in question have been committed by a flesh and blood perpetrator and definitely do not fall under the realm of the other wordly. That being said, in all but one of the tales, he arrives at his easily provable conclusions by a talent that is gifted to him by a realm, not of this earth and, of course, this makes him a literary antecedent to popular fictional investigators (or sometimes just unlucky souls) who can ‘see’ the specifics of a crime that has been committed. Perhaps the most popular kindred character to him in recent years is Frank Black, from the wonderful 1990s TV show Millennium.
As usual with Rohmer, at least in my experience, you come for the character but you stay for the prose and, once again, the author manages to render even the most commonplace things like the heralding of a caller at a door, into a poetically charged experience thusly, “... a ringing on the doorbell, followed by a discreet fandango on the knocker”. I also enjoyed his escalation of almost throwaway afterthoughts to render his prose with a kind of laid back attitude to a fuller picture, such as, “They had an appearance of dried twigs and an odour so wholly original as to defy simile.”, which I thought was pretty cool and made me smile.
It would be folly to say that these particular stories are either sparkling tales of great realms of the fantastic or, indeed, anything like essential reading but they do make for an interesting diversion of a collection and The Dream Detective is a character I could see taken up by other authors as one worthy of further explorations in future years. Perhaps, for example, his character would not be out of place for revival in the annual Tales Of The Shadowmen publications put out by Black Coat Press (indeed, he may have already turned up in one or two but I just can’t remember them). So, if you have not encountered Rohmer before then I would certainly point you in the direction of his many and varied Fu Manchu novels as a first resort but, this collection of Moris Klaw tales will probably hold a fascination for a certain section of his audience, there’s no doubt of that.