Monday, July 26, 2010


Tales of Secret Egypt is a 1918 collection of stories by Sax Rohmer, who is best known as the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu. There are twelve tales here; the first six concern mercenary relic hunter Neville Kernaby and his dealings with the mysterious Egyptian agent Abu Tabah, who always seems to be one step ahead of him. The last six stories are also Cairo-based but otherwise unrelated, and feature repeated themes of native myth and magic and the immediate and complete infatuation of Western men with Egyptian women.

Rohmer’s love of all things Egyptian is obvious, and his depictions of the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo make that city come alive. And Rohmer is a fully competent writer; once in a while he will drop a delightfully clever sentence on the reader. But his problem is the stories themselves. Nearly every story ends with a twist or revelation in the final sentence, but most of these are not surprising or interesting, and some are painfully obvious. He also uses too much Arabic – there are far too many words whose definitions cannot remotely be guessed at from the context.

Tales of Secret Egypt contains throughout a matter-of-fact racism not unlike the racism Rohmer has taken flak for in his Fu Manchu stories. The reader can, without much effort, construct something of a hierarchy of races, according to Rohmer: whites, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and, at the bottom, blacks (every black in every story in this volume is a massive, stupid goon).

In the end, it’s really just too bad that so many of the stories in Tales of Secret Egypt just sit there, because it would otherwise be a fine collection of exotic crime and mystery stories.