Completed: 4 January 2012
Paul Harley, a respected investigator of some unspecified sort, is visited by Sir Charles Abingdon one evening. Sir Charles believes that his life is in danger. He believes that he is being followed although he can spot no followers. His house has been burglarised but only some unimportant private papers were taken. Paul Harley is invited to Sir Charles’ for dinner to discuss his concerns. That evening, Paul Harley watches as Sir Charles dies at dinner after the two had eaten the same food and drunk the same wine. With his dying breath, Sir Charles manages to gasp out ‘“Fire-Tongue,” he said. “Nicol Brinn…”’ Thus, Harley never learns just what it is that Sir Charles wanted to discuss.
Who is Nicol Brinn and what is Fire-Tongue? There is no evidence that Sir Charles died of anything other than natural causes. No one else in the household knows anything about Fire-Tongue. By an accident of timing,(wrong place at the wrong time) Nicol Brinn had been a patient of Sir Charles. Nicol Brinn, a wealthy American adventurer knows what Fire-Tongue is but refuses to say. Paul is greatly annoyed at this intransigence.
“My reputation east and west is that of a white man. Mr. Brinn—I ask you for your confidence.”
After a line like that, said without the slightest hint of irony, what else is there to say? It pretty much captures everything the contemporary PC sensitive would object to in Western civilization. This particular novel is full of those kind of casual assaults. “She possessed in a high degree the feminine art of provoking a quarrel.” is another gem. I don’t remember other Rohmer novels being quite this bad, but may be it is because I just forget about those elements of the writing.
Fire-Tongue is the first of two Paul Harley stories by Rohmer. Bat Wing is the second. Both were originally serialised in 1921 and published in book form the same year. Fire-Tongue was serialized in Colliers starting Jan 1921. Bat Wing was serialised in Short Stories from Feb-June 1921.
Sax Rohmer is best known for his Dr. Fu Manchu stories, but like most pulp writers he wrote in many genres on many subjects. W.H. Auden said that “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” Fire-tongue last saw print in 1932. It was not undeservedly forgotten. The POD leaches have gotten a hold of it now so there are inferior copies readily available at ridiculous prices. An older reprint, sometimes with the dust jacket is usually cheaper than the POD dreck.
Of the two Paul Harley stories, I would say the Bat Wing is the better. Fire-Tongue is not particularly original. It seemed to me to be an anaemic rewriting of a Fu-Manchu story without the more genuine sinisterness of the Fu-Manchu character. The first Fu-Manchu story was published in 1913. By the time Fire-Tongue was published three Fu-Manchu books had been published. The how of the murder of Sir Charles Abingdon is actually quite obvious. The why is not that far behind. By the time we find out who or what Fire-Tongue is it doesn’t really matter all that much. If one is a Rohmer afficionado then Fire-Tongue is an OK read. Rohmer wrote better stories, so I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who has never read Rohmer.
Fire-Tongue is the first book completed as part of the 2012 Vintage Mystery challenge in the category of Cherchez le Homme.