Exploring the Etheric Borderland with Moris Klaw

by J. F. Norris

J. Lombardero's portrait of Moris Klaw for Pyramid Books

Early in his career, Sax Rohmer created an odd little man who ran a curio shop & solved unusual crimes by a bizarre method -- he slept on an odically sterilized pillow (what the heck is that? I hear you cry -- more on that later) at the scene of the crime & waited for psychic transmissions from the dirty deed doer. This odd little man with an entirely quirky way of speaking was Moris Klaw who aided by his beautifully exotic daughter, Isis, worked his way through nine weird crimes most of which involve some element of the supernatural. Klaw appears in only one volume of stories: The Dream Detective published in 1920.

The stories are narrated by a Watson of sorts -- Mr. Searles -- &, like most of these assistant characters of Rohmer's, he is something of a dullard. He is continually astonished by Klaw's uncanny sense of seeing a logical solution in what the rest of the world sees as impossible. He is also obsessed with Klaw's daughter -- the enigmatic & seductive Isis -- whom Searles describes in great detail that borders on the salacious. Searles, however, achieves something of a dimension by the seventh tale "The Case of the Haunting of Grange" in which he witnesses first hand Klaw's investigation methods & truly assists rather than passively observing.

It is Moris Klaw himself who makes the tales worth reading. He adds humor & mystery to each story & is always quick to show up the British police & other authority figures with his talk of the Cycle of Crime. An odd looking man of indeterminate age he is described by Searles in the first adventure -- "The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room:"

A very old man who carried his many years lightly, or a younger man prematurely aged. None could say which. His skin had the hue of dirty vellum, & his hair, shaggy brows, his scanty beard were so toneless as to defy classification in terms of colour. He wore an archaic brown bowler, smart, gold-rimmed pince-nez & a black silk muffler. A long caped black cloak completely enveloped the stooping figure; from beneath its mud spattered edge peeped long-toed continental boots. (p. 16)

This description does not vary much throughout the series of tales & one cannot help but think that Rohmer intends for us to take Moris Klaw as some ancient time traveller come to enlighten the ignorant modern man with secrets from cultures of the past. His eccentric inverted syntax; his habit of continually spraying himself with verbena ("such a refreshing habit -- from ancient Roman times"); his curio shop overflowing with musty relics & the unseen African parrot crying out "Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil's come for you!" each time a new patron enters the shop; his exotically named daughter (who herself seems other-worldly) all lead the reader to the conclusion that Klaw is something more than a just an odd man. His theory of "The Cycle of Crime" also hints at a knowledge that goes back centuries. Although Klaw claims to record the history of ancient objects in a journal in his shop, the intricate lore of things like Grecian harps, crusader battleaxes, ancient Egyptian pottery sherds & mummies is so vast that it is easier to believe that Klaw came in contact with the relics himself & witnessed the original evildoers using the items for their nefarious purpose rather than to accept him as a scholar & researcher of such things.

And what of this Cycle of Crime & that odically sterilized pillow I mentioned earlier? Simply put: Klaw believes that valuable curios have histories which will often repeat themselves. When the relic in question is cursed, or has been used to commit evil, it is even more apt to induce a repetitive cycle. He also believes that thoughts are things -- alive with electricity & odically charged & that he can sense them in his sleep. The theory is best described in Klaw's own idiosyncratic speech when he chides an uncomprehending policeman:

"It is clear you know nothing of the psychology of crime! Let me, then, enlighten you. First: all crime operates in cycles. Its history repeats itself, you understand. Second: thoughts are things. One who dies the violent death has, at the end, a strong mental emotion--an etheric storm. The air--the atmosphere--retains imprints of that storm." (p. 76)

And later, Klaw becomes a bit grisly in explaining his theory:

"[Criminals] destroy the clumsy tools of their crime; they hide away the knife, the bludgeon; they sop up the blood, they throw it, the jemmy, the dead man, the suffocated poor infant, into the ditch, the pool -- & they leave intact the odic negative, the photograph of their sin, the thought-thing in the air!" He would tap his high yellow brow. "Here upon this sensitive plate I reproduce it, the hanging evidence! The headless child is buried in the garden, but the thought of the beheader is left to lie about. I pick it up. Poof! he swings--that child slayer! I triumph." (pp. 178-179)

So when Klaw is called upon to investigate the mysterious deaths of several night watchmen at the Menzies Museum in the first tale. He sleeps on his odically sterilized pillow at the scene of the crime & waits for the thoughts of the criminal to come to him in a dream. While asleep he transforms those thoughts into dream-pictures & arrives at the solution of the crime. But do not call him a detective! He vehemently denies being associated with policeman & their kin. He calls himself a student of the Science of Cycles & "a humble explorer of the etheric borderland." (p. 82)

Unfortunately, as is the case with Rohmer's novels featuring Paul Harley, most of these mysterious crimes that appear to be impossible or the works of ghosts & demons turn out to be the work of ordinary humans. In the total nine "episodes" collected only one -- "The Case of the Veil of Isis" -- can be considered a true story of the supernatural. Of the remaining eight, four feature suspiciously supernatural incidents & four are crime stories. All are explained away as extraordinary coincidence or the work of devious human hands. Brief summaries of each episode including, be warned, some revelation of plot surprises.



1. "The Case of theTragedies in the Greek Room" -- Explained supernatural event. Series of violent deaths in the Greek Room of the Menzies Museum. A ghost seems to be responsible for playing the harp & each person who intervenes & takes the harp away is struck down dead. Ghost proves to be a somnambulist. The harp proves to be an ingeniously designed instrument of administering poison.

2. "The Case of thePotsherd of Anubis" -- Impossible crime tale. The flimsiest tale in the collection. Three young men are duped by a visiting archeologist (proves to be Klaw in disguise & it's not hard to guess) who holds a seance around a pottery fragment taken from an Egyptian vase. The archeologist then manages to steal the sherd & vanishes from a locked room.

3. "The Case of theCrusader's Axe" -- Explained supernatural event. A scheming businessman who planned to turn Crespie House into a country house for tourists & travellers is done in with a battleaxe again. Appears that the butler did it! Murder proves to be an accidental death from an outrageous coincidence of the axe falling from its mounting on the wall.

4. "The Case of theIvory Statue" -- Explained supernatural event. Statue sculpted in the outmoded chryselephantine style (bedecked with real jewelry) apparently disappears in so short a time no one could possible have stolen it. Statue was decorated with, among other items, a cursed jeweled girdle & Klaw reminds everyone of the Cycle of Crime. Outrageous solution involves a human impersonation of the statue by the artist's model.

5. "The Case of theBlue Rajah" -- Impossible crime tale. Unsatisfying & dull. Valuable diamond disappears in seconds when the lights go out in a room. Several witnesses are present & each one is searched, but no diamond. Theft accomplished by legerdemain & an outside assistant.

6. "The Case of theWhispering Poplars" -- Haunted house/Mysterious crime. We learn in this tale that Klaw is the author of a book -- Psychic Angles -- which describes several haunted houses throughout Europe. A private detective is attacked & mortally wounded while protecting a young woman on the grounds of "The Park, " a home which was host to several violent deaths in the past. Complex plot twist involves revenge plot, poison arrows & misdirection.

7. "The Case of theHeadless Mummies" -- Mysterious crime. Someone has become a serial beheader & the targets are mummies. Martin Coram, head of the Menzies Museum, returns & asks for Klaw's help. Straightforward detection story with solution hinging on reason the culprit would chop off heads of only mummies. Interesting element here is that Klaw, at first, believes the acts to be the work of a madman & to attempt to learn of his odic thoughts would be fruitless since a madman's thoughts would be grotesque & convoluted. He resorts to his library & journal of ancient relics' histories to reveal a method in the madness.

8. "The Case of theHaunting of Grange" -- Haunted House/Explained Ghost phenomena. Only story in which Klaw is in danger. Only story in which Searle has active participation in the investigation & solution. Sir James Leyland has been living a house that was haunted for centuries by a monk, but now a new manifestation takes place nearly every night -- demonic laughter & a voice that makes obscene suggestions. Solution involves exploration of the house, discovery of secret passages & a recording device. Nicely done until the solution which even for 1920 is rather cliche.

9. "The Case of theVeil of Isis" -- Authentic occult tale Here, at last, is the most successful of the tales. For those who like their things that go bump in the night chillingly real Rohmer provides an eerie setting, an obsessed man, & a fearfully reluctant assistant. It is probably no surprise to Rohmer fans that he chose his true occult tale in this collection to be yet another one dealing with ancient Egypt. An Egyptian scholar recruits his sister to help him in the recreation of an ancient ritual that will summon the goddess Isis. He asks several witnesses to be present when the ritual is performed. Creepy things happen & two people nearly die when the sister succumbs to ritual magic & is transformed/possessed by an other worldly force.   

copyright 2001 by John Norris, all rights reserved.

This essay was originally

posted on Jessica Amanda Salmonson web site: Violet Books.

John has granted permission to post it here as well. Visit his bookstore, Pretty Sinister Books.

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