Sax Rohmer was born on February 15th, 1883 as Arthur Henry Sarsfield in Birmingham to working class parents.
Rohmer started his career as a civil servant but soon had ambitions to change careers and write full time.
Not content with just fiction he wrote poetry, songs as well as comedy sketches for music hall performers. From these varied beginnings he reinvented himself as Sax Rohmer.
He first published in 1903, age 20, with the short story ‘The Mysterious Mummy’ in the magazine Pearson’s Weekly. At this stage his early influences are easy to spot as he pays homage to both Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Together with his contemporaries Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, Rohmer claimed membership to a popular (among creatives) faction of the qabbalistic Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (a Western esoteric tradition involving mysticism, Gnosticism, and the occult. It is the underlying philosophy and framework for magical societies such as the Golden Dawn).
His career, at this point, is one of transitioning from his earlier genres and short stories, the latter of which were in demand from the plethora of weekly and monthly magazines that were hungry for content and paid relatively well, to full length novels.
In 1909 he married Rose Elizabeth Knox to whom he would remain married until his death half a century later.
He published his first book Pause! anonymously in 1910 and followed this in 1911 with a stint as ghost-writer on the autobiography of Little Tich, the stage name of the famous 4’ 6” music hall entertainer Harry Relph.
The serialization of his first Fu Manchu novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, from October 1912 to June 1913 brought him instant success. Though today his works are seen as morally flawed at the time the fast-paced story of Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie facing the worldwide conspiracy of the ‘Yellow Peril’ meant only one thing. Sequels.
The first three Fu Manchu books were published between 1913–1917. These books were also turned into two successful serials for the cinema by Stoll in the 1920s. (Stoll was based at its own film studios located in Cricklewood, in NW London, which operated from 1920 to 1938 and was owned by Sir Oswald Stoll as the principal base for his Stoll Pictures, which also operated from Surbiton Studios. The studio was the largest in Britain at the time. It was later used for the production of quota quickies. In 1938 the studios were sold off for non-film use. Sir Oswald Stoll is perhaps better known as a theatre owner.)
Rohmer then put the character on hiatus whilst he attended to other works and characters. It was only after a 14-year absence in 1931 that Rohmer added a fourth to the series with The Daughter of Fu Manchu after pressure from both the Colliers Magazine and for the marketing opportunity about to be unveiled by the Paramount film The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu, the first talkie version of his works.
Rohmer's first effort at reviving the Fu Manchu property was eventually reworked as The Emperor of America as Rohmer was unhappy both with the book as outlined and as it finished. In the meantime, he tried to focus his creative abilities on what was first titled Fu Manchu's Daughter in 1930, but with an older, and knighted, Nayland Smith as the protagonist once more. The results were far superior and jump-started the series back to commercial prominence.
In the 28 years from 1931 to 1959, Rohmer added no fewer than 10 new books to the Fu Manchu series, creating thirteen in total and, posthumously, a fourteenth with the collection The Wrath of Fu Manchu.
The Fu Manchu series drew a lot of criticism both from the Chinese government and Chinese communities for what was seen as negative and ethnic stereotyping. Whilst many critics say they were products of their time that does not avoid the conflict with modern day sensibilities.
Any writer would base a character on a friend or acquaintance and Rohmer was no different. He had made friends with the escapologist Harry Houdini, who wrote to him praising his book The Romance of Sorcery. From this relationship sprang his mystery-solving magician character Bazarada based on Houdini.
One book that stands alone in Rohmers’ works is The Orchard of Tears (1918). There are no villains or far-flung locations; instead, there are gentle rabbits and lambs in pastoral settings together with a great deal of philosophical musing, an antidote it seems to the previous few years.
The incredible commercial success of Fu Manchu had brought Rohmer both fame and fortune and he wanted to use both to allow him to explore and create other characters as well as other interests.
In The Quest of the Sacred Slipper (1919) terror arrives on Britain’s shores when an ego ridden archaeologist happens upon one of Islam's holiest relics—the sacred slipper of the prophet Mohammed. Until it is returned to its rightful people, the Hassan of Aleppo vows his reign of death and destruction shall not cease. Behind these inhuman outrages dwells a secret group of fanatics and not even the best of Scotland Yard detectives seem able to apprehend them.
Tales of Chinatown (1922) is a collection of ten stories that first appeared in magazines. It includes a story considered one of his best; "Tcheriapin." The story "The Hand of the Mandarin Quong" was rewritten for this. It had been first published as "Hand of the White Sheikh" but Rohmer changed the setting to a Chinatown background and published it as "The Mystery of the Shriveled Hand" the title then changed for this collection.
Rohmer also wrote several novels of supernatural horror, including Brood of the Witch-Queen, which has been described as Rohmer's masterpiece.
Unfortunately, despite his ability to generate income, Rohmer lacked the skills to properly manage his wealth and made several very poor business decisions that hobbled him throughout his career.
His final success came with a series of novels featuring a female variation on Fu Manchu, Sumuru. This series would run to five novels.
Ironically, given that today some of Rohmer’s actions are seen as bordering on racism, his works were banned in Nazi Germany and Rohmer complained loudly that he could not understand such censorship, stating "my stories are not inimical to Nazi ideals".
After World War II, Rohmer and his wife moved to New York, only returning to London shortly before his death. Sax Rohmer died on June 1st, 1959, due to an outbreak of influenza, ironically named "Asian Flu".
His wife, Rose Elizabeth, together with Cay Van Ash, her husband's former assistant, wrote a biography of Rohmer, Master of Villainy, published in 1972.