From 1951, this was the second in a series of five books* Sax Rohmer wrote about his other mysterious supercriminal. If you have read all the Fu Manchu books and are craving more, Sumuru is very close in style and theme but also has some unique qualities all her own. This particular book has a real startle toward the end, when you realize Sumuru is even more seductive than she seems. (This ending was changed for the British edition SLAVES OF SUMURU.)
Rohmer repeats himself most obviously with his pair of investigative heroes, pretty much lesser copies of Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie. American intelligence ace Drake Roscoe ("Ka-Chow!") is deeply tanned, steely-eyed, with the tense hyperactive nervousness of Smith... drumming his fingers, pacing quickly back and forth, losing patience with his partner's susceptibility to female charm. Working with him is former BBC reporter Tony McKeigh, now temporarily assigned to Intelligence. Tony is perhaps not so much like Petrie as he is like the young romantic fools that Rohmer so often saddled the misogynistic Nayland Smith with. He goes thrugh an awful lot of emotional agony to win the heart of one of Sumuru's followers.
These guys are hot on the trail of one of the great criminal masterminds in thriller fiction, known to her followers as "Our Lady" or "My Lady". She is called the Marquise Sumuru for convenience, having been married to a Japanese nobleman at the start of the war. Like one of Will Eisner's venomous female crooks, she has been married to several very wealthy men, none of whom seemed to have survived for too long.
Although she is described as the most beautiful woman in the world, with a spellbinding golden voice, suprisingly few details are given of her actual appearance. Knowing Sax Rohmer, I expected the old boy to make her an exotic Eurasian or half Egyptian or another of his obsessions (not that there's anything wrong with all that, to be sure). One character seriously says that he thinks Sumuru appears different to each onlooker, always what they consider most desirable... the literal "glamour" of sorcery. There are quite a few hints here that she does indeed know a little witchraft and telpathy. There are also a few suggestions that she in fact very old ("Have you sometimes asked yourself why I never change? Have you asked yourself if I might be the Wandering Jewess?")
Sumuru is the absolute ruler of a global cult, the Order of Our Lady, which she herself founded. Several times, she mentions how her goal is "to restore beauty to a world grown ugly" and even to forestall the coming war between the superpowers. She mentions how the Second World War could have been avoided if someone like her had judiciously assassinated a few leaders. We quickly learn her real plan is much more ominous and inhumane.
Our Lady basically runs a huge religious cult, kidnapping beautiful women from all over the world and keeping them as agents under terror of reprisal and the dominance of her own charisma. Interestingly, most of these followers seem to genuinely believe in their Lady and accept her wisdom without question, like semi-brainwashed members of the religious cults still running around today. Trying to leave means a painful death. These gorgeous minions seduce and entice powerful men into Sumuru's control ("...for men, however brilliantly gifted, readily become enslaved by beauty," as she observes).
She's hit on a good tactic here. Fu Manchu used to inject people with a coma-inducing serum and then revive them as his slaves, using hypnotism and fear as additional incentives. Sumuru has harnessed the immense power of sexual attraction to be her weapon. (Let's face it, how many us either male or female haven't acted like fools for a pretty girl or a handsome guy? If I could have back all the time and money I wasted on...errr, back to the story.)
Although she doesn't show near the Devil Doctor's mega-genius (with his degrees from half a dozen universities, all his inventions and medical discoveries), Sumuru seems to have instead specialized in the study of exotic poisons. Any purpose, any effect, she has a potion for it. Her most unnerving toxin is the "rigor kubus, a sort of fungus that invades the system and apparently turns the body into something like stone." This leads to some grisly scenes, as her victims freeze where they're standing and turn into something hard as marble. I love this technique, it has echoes of the ancient Gorgon, Medusa, whose stare turned men to stone, and it gives Sumuru a slightly supernatural air.
Our Lady's ultimate goal is to establish a new order with herself on the throne, and women of her cult running the world. Men who don't have either useful skills or physical appeal would be liquidated. She has thousands of followers on every continent, and although her actual plan would ultimately end in pointless slaughter and genocide, even now she has become leader of one of the great secret empires. I don't know how seriously we can take her slightly totalitarian vision of the human race reduced to a breeding stock under her enlightened control. Supervillains often had grandiose explanations to justify why they were killing and robbing, none of which stand up to consideration.
As you might expect with Rohmer, the heroes are dogged, rather uninteresting bloodhounds on the scent. The villain, on the other hand, is a fascinating mix of traits. She's an incredible tease, for one thing, constantly keeping the surprising number of men on her personal staff worked up over the one woman that they can't possess. Most symbolically, her great joy is swimming nude in a pool and tormenting a ferocious barracuda named Satan. The killer fish batters himself against a glass partition to get at her and she thinks it's the funniest thing possible. This kind of shows how she regards the world. She also has a mink fetish.
One of things I like best about Sax Rohmer is that (like Robert E. Howard and Ian Fleming), he is right there in everything he wrote, his fears and joys and preoccupations are right there on the page. Sumuru is an impressive creation, not just because of her strong seductive qualities and ingenious schemes, but because Rohmer himself was feeling her awesome presence when he wrote. Like Fu Manchu, she radiates cunning, confidence and determination that in real life would run right over ordinary people. Now I have another four books to track down....
*Our gal actually first appeared in an eight-part BBC serial starting in December 1945, SHADOW OF SUMURU. This was later reworked into the first Sumuru book, NUDE IN MINK (hey, if she's wearing a mink coat, she's not really nude, eh?).