Sax Rohmer is probably best remembered as the creator of the Fu Manchu series. In 1920, his novel The Green Eyes of Bast and his novella “The Haunting of Low Fennel” were published, and both spotlight a character named Addison. If this is not exactly one and the same character, it’s pretty clear that Rohmer was at least toying with the idea of creating yet another series character, one something like his occult detective, Moris Klaw. (Klaw is the title character of The Dream Detective, also published in 1920.)
While Klaw relies on an occult method of solving crimes — the dream detective gleans psychic residue left by criminals by sleeping at crime scenes — Addison is a self-proclaimed debunker of cases alleged to involve the occult. In Green Eyes, he explains that he’s a free-lance reporter, one with money enough to be picky about what he writes and with time enough to indulge his “inherent weakness for obscure studies.” A few pages later, he adds, “Criminology was one of my hobbies, and in several instances I had traced cases of alleged haunting and other supposedly supernatural happenings to a criminal source. . . .” “Low Fennel” makes no mention of his reporting — nor of his first name, Jack. However, “Mr. Addison” again serves as narrator and says that he has “investigated several cases of haunting” that were traced to physical, often geological sources. In one story, he investigates crimes disguised as supernatural; in the other, he investigates the science beneath supernatural-seeming occurrences. So is this the same Addison?
If we proceed on the idea that it is the same character, it should be noted that Addison sums up the “Low Fennel” case “in my study in London,” and in Green Eyes, he explains that he has left London for an “odd little backwater where my only link with Fleet Street, with the land of theaters and clubs and noise and glitter, was the telephone.” Though the suburban setting is important to the plot of the novel, we still might use this clue to put the novella first chronologically. To be honest, though, they can be read in either order.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:
One thing that certainly ties the two works together is they both ultimately debunk what appears to supernatural activity. Yes, I’ve just spoiled the endings, but it’s at least as entertaining to see how Rohmer misdirects his readers as it is to be misdirected. In “Low Fennel,” we’re given all the signs of ghostly activity: a sinister history attached to the property, a series of reports describing a devilish entity, a panicked dog, even a mysterious strangling! Still, a strange, psychotropic gas that rises from the ground during hot weather becomes the culprit. (A dangerous gas also figures into the the novel, reminding us how scary such things were to readers after the gas warfare of the Great War.) Green Eyes first tantalizes readers with a mysterious woman who seems to possess feline eyes and agility! However, there, the author winds up pinning the mysterious events on weird science, not occult phenomenon. In fact, a prime suspect admits that he had become “a second Frankenstein,” and Addison concludes that this character, “a victim of one of his own devilish inventions, was no more than a brilliant madman.” Even so, by the last chapter, Addison agrees that the motives of this madman as well as his devilish invention are better traced to insanity than to science run amok.
In terms of telling a tale that leads readers to believe the supernatural is involved — and then providing a perfectly reasonable, perfectly natural explanation — both tales stretch credulity very, very thinly. It’s Sax Rohmer, after all. Green Eyes is downright disappointing when it comes to Addison solving the mystery. Because he doesn’t. In fact, he plays second fiddle to a Scotland Yard official named Inspector Gatton throughout the novel. I was reminded Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) in that Addison narrates his own unspectacular efforts to unravel the puzzle while Gatton is offstage doing most of the useful fact finding. Despite their best efforts, the crime is solved for them instead of by them, albeit in a tentative manner. In the end, the professional and the amateur detective aren’t entirely sure exactly what happened.
“Low Fennel” puts Addison much more in charge of solving the case, but given the gaseous resolution noted above . . . well, I would’ve preferred confirmation of the supernatural scenario that’s sketched earlier.
Jack Addison, in the end, does not qualify for my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Though his cases do blend conventions of mystery fiction with those of supernatural fiction, ultimately, this detective is not compelled to accept the reality of the occult. Instead, he discovers himself in a world invaded by cryptic science. Addison, then, follows the tradition of Mr. Utterson, the lawyer who serves as detective in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).
Both of Addison’s cases make for fairly mediocre reading, too. Perhaps he becomes more interesting when read in light of Rohmer intentionally skirting the occult detective tradition. By 1920, it seems, this tradition had been well enough established that authors were varying, challenging, and teasingly sidestepping it.