- By Sax Rohmer
- First published: UK: Cassell, 1914
Jews in British thrillers and detective stories are too often anti-Semitic stereotypes: the flashy financier, the war profiteer, the wheedling moneylender, hook-nosed and obsessed with money. Handsome young Jews turn out to be vicious serial-killers who prey on Gentile girls.
Even Agatha Christie wasn’t above poking fun at “Hebraic people… yellow-faced financiers in city offices” (The Secret of Chimneys, 1926). To her credit, she also sympathetically described a Jewish family coping with English prejudice (Giant’s Bread, 1931), and one of her heroines married a Jew rather than her English admirer (a murderous bigamist). Gladys Mitchell gave us popular Jewish town councillors (Brazen Tongue, 1940) and disagreeable Jew-hating writers (Printer’s Error, 1939), Dorothy L. Sayers a frenzied anti-Semitic murderer; his daughter marries a friend of Lord Peter’s (Whose Body?, 1923)…
But these instances are rare. Far more common was the attitude of Anthony Berkeley’s obnoxious sleuth Roger Sheringham, eating “a large plateful of prunes and tapioca pudding, the two things besides Jews that he detested most in the world” (The Layton Court Mystery, 1925).
The hero of Rohmer’s thriller has had enough. Séverac Bablon, you see, is the secret king of the Jews. He wears the Ring of Solomon, and apparently keeps the Ark of the Covenant behind a curtain. He is “at enmity with all who have brought shame upon the Jewish race; he seeks to purge the Jewish name of the taint of greed, to force those responsible for fostering that taint to disburse; he hates those mean of soul, and loves those worthy of their ancient line”.
“Upon his people lay a cloud – a tainting shadow grown black through the centuries. He must disperse it, proclaiming to the world that his was a noble people, a nation with a mighty soul! The evil came not from without but from within. The worst enemies of the Jews are the Jews.” (A dubious statement; anti-Semites needed little reason to hate.)
Rohmer’s book appeared in 1914, two years after the ‘Marconi scandal’. Eye-Witness (run by Hilaire Belloc) and The New Witness (edited by G.K.’s brother Cecil Chesterton), right-wing and Catholic, ran heated anti-Semitic campaigns accusing Liberal politicians – including Attorney-General Sir Rufus Isaacs and Postmaster General Herbert Samuel, both Jews – of insider trading with (Jewish) financiers. It was “a Jewish problem”, Cecil Chesterton claimed. (Isaacs bought and sold shares at a lower price, and the accused men were cleared but were considered to have acted with with ” grave impropriety”.)
Rohmer argues that while some Jews might be crooked, they are not typical of Jewry. “Despite enormous benefactions,” Bablon tells a tycoon’s daughter, “the Jews as a race bear the stigma of cupidity and meanness. It is wholly undeserved… The sums annually devoted to charitable purposes, by such a family as the Elschilds – my very good friends – are truly stupendous. But the Elschilds do not seek the limelight. Mr. Rohscheimer, Baron Hague, Sir Leopold Jesson, Mr. Hohsmann – and your father, are celebrated only for their unscrupulous commercial methods in the formation of combines. They do not distribute their wealth.”
For a writer notorious for the Fu Manchu novels, exploiting fears of fiendish Chinese and the Yellow Peril, it’s a startlingly liberal position.
With the help of both Jews and Gentiles, Bablon wages a campaign against the financiers and profiteers who have given Jews a bad name; he whitewashes them and forces them to do good with their money (“the fundamental, the Divine, the Mosaic Law of Justice”). His ‘victims’ are made to donate enormous amounts to charities and to defence programs – and the public realise what an important and positive contribution the Jews make.
Anti-Semitism often came from a fear that the Jews did not truly belong to the country where they lived; with their non-Christian religion, some wearing distinctive clothes, or speaking Hebrew or Yiddish, they could seem alien, objects of suspicion and hostility. In Rohmer’s book, The Times leader shows how “the Jews are the backbone of British prosperity, and truer patriots than any whose fathers crossed with Norman William”.
One financier is represented as quoting the British Chief Rabbi, Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz: “The true Jew is an integral part of the life and spiritual endeavour of every nation where Providence has allotted his home. And as for the Jews of this Empire, which is earth’s nearest realization hitherto of justice coupled with humanity, finely has a noble Anglo-Jewish soldier, Colonel Goldschmidt, expressed it: ‘Loyalty to the flag for which the sun once stood still can only deepen our devotion to the flag on which the sun never sets.’”