ALBERT DORRINGTON – The Radium Terrors. Eveleigh Nash, UK, hardcover, 1912. Doubleday Pagr, US, hardcover, 1912. W. R. Caldwell & Co., US, Hardcover, ca. 1912. Serialized in The Pall Mall Magazine, UK, January-June 1911, and in The Scrap Book, January-August 1911.

   Beatrice Messonier sat near the window dazed and mystified by her benefactor’s dazzling prophecies. Something in his manner suggested an approaching crisis in his own life and hers. What did his talk of princes and statesmen mean? She would have regarded such an outburst in another as the result of alcoholic excesses. But Teroni Tsarka was not given to the use of stimulants. He abhorred intemperance of mind and body. What he had spoken was the result of his structural philosophy, she felt certain. A tremendous crisis in medical research was at hand. And Teroni Tsarka was the man to sound the trumpet of science to an apathetic civilization.

   Beatrice Messonier is a brilliant oculist whose research was backed by the mysterious Dr. Tsarka, who has helped her learn the secrets of the Z Ray, the powerful result of radium research, and has set her up in a clinic, which has no patients thanks to his insistence on exorbitant fees.

   Just that night she broken her own heart having had to turn down the young detective Clifford Renwick, who was blinded with radium by Tsarka’s own assistant Horubi when Renwick tried to force an interview with Tsarka about the recently stolen Moritz Radium, Renwick being a youthful private investigator eager to make a name for himself.

   And of course we are off in the land of the Yellow Peril novel, serialized in Pall Mall, a popular British magazine on the lines of The Strand, and handsomely illustrated as well.

   Ironically Sax Rohmer had much the same idea in about the same year, with Dr. Fu Manchu making his debut, but even with Rohmer’s rather crude Edwardian style, his work is a far cry from the maudlin at times (the blinded Renwick has a touching moment with his old gray mother after escaping Tsarka — something you can hardly imagine Dr. Petrie or Nayland Smith bothering with) and painfully arch Dorrington.

   The formula here is much the same of the early Fu Manchu books, parry and thrust, chase, escape, and traps to capture Tsarka sharing about equal time with not particularly imaginative deadly traps for young Renwick.

   But the devil in these details is how dated Dorrington’s novel reads compared to Rohmer, who for all his melodrama and atmosphere is practically a minimalist in comparison.

   What with Beatrice Messonier (another difference is that in Rohmer, a Eurasian beauty wins Dr. Petrie’s heart, but in Dorrington, Renwick can’t be involved with a woman much more exotic than a Frenchwoman) unconvincingly posing as a much older woman and forced to seem heartless and cruel to young Renwick, and Tsarka being more interested in profit than world conquest, it is, for all its thrills, pretty pale stuff compared to Rohmer’s unknown poisons, Fu Manchu’s army of dacoit assassins, seductive Eurasian beauties under his spell, snakes, rats, weird poisonous bugs and the like.

   Tsarka, like Fu Manchu, has a daughter, but she is a far cry from Fu Manchu’s child. Rather she is a pale flower whose Japanese artist lover lives with she and her father (Tsarka uses an exhibition of the young man’s work to blind several prominent people who must then seek Madame Messonier’s clinic, the extent of his evil masterplan, a cheap cruel con game to make a few bucks). I suppose the attractive lovers are a step up from Fu Manchu’s evil daughter, but frankly they don’t bring much to the proceedings rather than a bit of humanization to the cruel and crafty Japanese scientist despite his penchant for experimenting on unwilling victims.

   “The scoundrel!” burst from Coleman. “He and his associates appear to have discovered a destroyer of human energy in radium. Personally, I fear that we shall find ourselves unable to cope with this new school of Asiatic criminals who regard the blinding of men and women as a pleasant pastime.”

   Reading this, it doesn’t take much imagination to see Rohmer’s entry in the Yellow Peril stakes for the startlingly new and modern work it must have seemed what with a thin patina of sex, relatively clipped dialogue, and straight forward telling wrapped in the opium fog laden atmosphere of Limehouse out of Thomas Burke and pure imagination. Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” reads as if it might have been written in the early twenties, where Dorrington’s Radium Terrors reads as if it might have been written in the early eighteen nineties.

   The book has its thrills, and while dated, it isn’t badly written, but reading it you can understand what readers noted in better writers of the era, a voice, that beginning with Conan Doyle, was more modern and less given to maudlin sentiment and long winded prose. Reading Rohmer after Dorrington, or around the same time, must have been as refreshing as discovering Dashiell Hammett after a steady diet of Carolyn Wells.

   Reading this can give you a new appreciation for the relative modernity of the more vulgar, and certainly more gifted Sax Rohmer. Tsarka is a mean and constipated villain, vicious, petty, and ultimately ridiculous for all the Victorian language. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is a Miltonian angel fallen to earth — some recent Asian literary scholars have suggested rehabilitating Fu Manchu for just that reason — because the character has, both in Rohmer’s work and the public imagination, transcended his racist origins becoming an archetype as much as a stereotype.

   Whether there proves to be anything to that view or not the inescapable fact of reading The Radium Terrors is that Rohmer and Fu Manchu ran literary rings around Dorrington and his Dr. Tsarka, and it may just be the difference, aside from Rohmer’s superior storytelling skills, is that Dorrington doesn’t believe in his Japanese pretender for a moment, and Rohmer embraces the his creation with full blooded zeal.

   Fu Manchu lived and breathed. Tsarka lingers like a bad taste.