Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 28, 2018


The Yellow Claw by Sax Rohmer  (1915)

Let's go back a little over a century ago to when England was still England and fog still enshrouded the mysterious sections of London, and certainly no part of London was more mysterious and alien than Limehouse.

Limehouse.  Where life is cheap and crime is controlled by enigmatic Chinese.  Where lives are ruined and dreams are fulfilled by the fruit of the poppy.  Where vast undercover chambers and secret passages hold danger for the unwary Englishman.

Yes, let's go back tp a place that never really existed except in the fevered imaginations of such writers as Thomas Burke, Achmed Abdullah, and Sax Rohmer.  To a time of jingoism and oriental masterminds controlling webs of evil that stretched to the major cities of the world, hidden just below the surface and unknown to the average citizen.

Henry Leroux is such a citizen.  A novelist and the creator of the great detective Martin Zeda, Leroux is a quiet and withdrawn man, undemanding in his personal life.  His wife is on one of her frequent extended trips to Paris and Leroux is alone -- the few servants are out.  There's a frantic pounding on the door, begging for help.  Leroux opens the door and a young, attractive women -- clad in civet fur -- stumbles into his flat and collapses, but not before saying that "Mr. King" is after her.  Prone on the floor, and sticking out from the fur, is an ankle!  A shapely, bare ankle.  Good Heavens!  I say, Good Heavens, sir!  That sort of thing does not happen in Henry Leroux's quiet and ordered England!

Leroux rushes out to get help from Doctor Cumberly, who lives in the flat above with his daughter Helen.  The noise also alerts John Exel, an MP who lives in the flat below and ho had just returned home.  The three return to Leroux's flat to discover the young woman dead...strangled during the few minutes that Leroux had gone to get help.  No trace of the murderer can be found and the three witnesses swear that no one exited the building by its solitary stairwell.  How had the murderer escaped.

The case falls to Detective-Inspector Dunbar and his assistant, Detective-Sergeant Sowerby.  The dead girl was an opium addict and what few clues there are point the Chinese of Limehouse.  (An individual Chinese person, BTW, is seldom referred to as "Chinese," but rather as a "Chinaman."  White superiority rears its mighty head.)  The case appears to be going nowhere, but then two people arrive in London.

The first is Denise Ryland, the woman with whom Mrs. Leroux was to be staying in Paris.  Denise Ryland had not seen her friend in over a year, yet Leroux insisted his wife had gone to visit her at least four times that year.  So where has Mrs. Leroux been if not with her friend?  And where is she now?

The second person is Gaston Max, the famous French detective of the Surete.  (Max is the lead character in several of Rohmer's novels and the subject of a half dozen BBC plays in the early Forties.)  A man of supreme intellect and will, Max has spent the last year investigating an international ring of opium traffickers led by the mysterious Mr.King.

Suddenly, The Yellow Claw takes a complete shift as it follows the minor criminal Soames, who had placed as Leroux's valet for a nefarious purpose.  Soames had fled when he found out about the dead body in Leroux's flat.  With the help of an unpleasant Greek criminal, Soames is placed in an underground labyrinth in Limehouse and given to work in an opium den.  Here we also meet the elderly Ho-Pin, the ruthless Said, and the beautiful but deadly Mahara.  For nearly a hundred pages, the flow of the story is interrupted by Soames plight among the lavish rooms and corridors hidden under the streets of Limehouse, where the walls and doors themselves seem to appear and disappear.

Max himself manages to get into the opium den and experiences some of the dreams and fantasies that opium -- and the lovely Mahara -- can provide.

The Yellow Claw is a diffuse novel that often loses its focus.  Eerie and exciting parts abound, but so do dull and plodding sections that could have been more effectively used.  For most of its 426 pages, the main question of who "Mr. King" is is completely lost.  The book may have helped cement Rohmer's reputation as a master of the thriller a century ago but most readers of today would demand a strong editor.


  1. Haven't read Rohmer in a loooong time, and perhaps for good reason. Enjoyed your review, and grateful for the caveat at the end!

  2. I have read a couple of Rhomer's stand-alone novels (though not this one) and much prefer the Fu Manchu books, often for the reasons you describe.