Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Devil Doctor by Sax Rohmer

"I escaped, I, who am swift of foot, hoping to bring help."—He shook his head sadly—"But, except the All Powerful, who is so powerful as the Hâkîm Fu-Manchu?"
A 1967 British paperback
The second volume of stories chronicling the struggle between evil Chinese genius Dr. Fu-Manchu and British civil servant Nayland Smith (and his right-hand man Dr. Petrie) was published in Britain in 1916 under the title The Devil Doctor.  The American edition was published earlier the same year as The Return of Fu-Manchu. This week I read an electronic edition of The Devil Doctor that I downloaded for free at  The stories that make up the episodic novel first appeared in 1914 and 1915 in the American weekly magazine Collier's, and if you are curious you can see scans of these old magazines at the Hathi Trust Digital Library; the stories appear in volumes 54, 55 and 56, and are illustrated by J. C. Coll.

(Again, I am indebted to Lawrence Knapp and his impressive Sax Rohmer website for much of this information about publication dates and venues.)

The second Fu-Manchu book is broadly similar to the first (known as The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu in the US and The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu in the UK), which I talked about in my last blog post.  Two years after the events of that first book, Fu-Manchu, the greatest scientist on the planet and a leading member of a conspiracy to elevate China and destroy the West, has returned to England. His mission, same as last time, is to kill or kidnap people who might expose the Chinese menace.  Nayland Smith has also returned to England from the mysterious East, hot on Fu-Manchu's trail, and hooked up with his buddy Dr. Petrie, who narrates these lurid tales of violence and horror.  Also back is the beautiful Karamaneh, the girl who, though her skin is white, is a creature of the Orient.  Just like in the first book, Karamaneh is working for Fu-Manchu under duress, and repeatedly betrays the Chinese madman, saving the lives of Smith and Petrie again and again.

Over the book's ten sections Smith and Petrie scramble from one part of London to another, and even to a castle in the West Country (near the site of the Battle of Sedgemoor), trying to obstruct the diabolical Chinese genius as he employs bizarre means to assassinate various individuals.  This time around Fu-Manchu makes wide use of animals to achieve his murderous ends; his macabre menagerie includes a giant baboon that has been trained to strangle people (shades of "Murders in the Rue Morgue!"), a snake disguised as a walking stick, various rodents, and a killer cat.  This feline isn't Cecil-sized--it's just an ordinary-sized cat--but Fu-Manchu has treated its claws with a deadly venom and instructed his servants to throw the cat at those he has marked for death. Rohmer's stories are billed as "mysteries," and the "when animals attack" segments are structured in such a way that the reader is kept in the dark as to exactly what type of beast is causing all the mayhem; we are provided with clues until in the climax the species of assailant is revealed.

Illustration from Collier's by J. C. Coll
I found the characters of Smith and Petrie a little bland in the first book, but I think Rohmer spruced them up a bit in this second volume. Smith becomes a little more of a wish-fulfillment character with a greater emphasis on his "commission." Reminding me of James Bond's "licence to kill," Nayland Smith is "vested with ultimate authority in his quest of the mighty Chinaman," meaning he can break any laws and issue commands to any government employee in pursuit of his duty. Several times he whips out a document signed by the Commissioner of Police and shows it to people whose property he is appropriating or whom he wants to push around: friend pulled a letter from his pocket and thrust it under the man's nose.
"Read that!" he directed harshly, "and then listen to my orders."
In an early scene Smith commandeers a wealthy man's car (and chauffeur!):
"Quick!" he cried to the stupefied chauffeur. "You passed a car a minute ago—yonder. Can you overtake it?"
"I can try, sir, if I don't lose her track."
Smith leapt in, pulling me after him.
"Do it!" he snapped. "There are no speed limits for me."
Petrie is also more interesting.  In the first Fu-Manchu book Karamaneh was inexplicably in love with the English physician, but in this volume it is Petrie who is lovesick for the Eastern girl, and he goes on and on about her musical voice and dark eyes and so on.  For her part, Karamaneh has apparently totally forgotten about Smith and Petrie, who in The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu liberated her and her brother from the clutches of Fu-Manchu.  (We eventually learn that Fu-Manchu has erased her memory.)  Smith, like any good friend, is there to provide relationship advice to his heartbroken buddy:
"But she's only a woman, old boy, and women are very much alike—very much alike from Charing Cross to Pagoda Road."  
We romantics are glad to find that Petrie ignores this well-meaning but heartless advice.  In the final part of the book Petrie and Karamaneh are on a steam ship in the Mediterranean, on their way to start a life together in Egypt.

A British 1916 edition
Smith and Petrie not only have more personality in this book, they actually seem to do more, playing a bigger role in driving the plot and resolving the conflicts.  I got the feeling that Smith and Petrie were actually going out and looking for Karamaneh and Fu-Manchu, instead of just reacting to the Chinese mastermind's initiatives. Instead of leaving all the shooting and scrapping to other people, like Karamaneh and Scotland Yard officers, as they did in the first book, Petrie and Smith really mix it up with the enemy this time round.  Petrie, for example, shoots a torturer in the face and hacks off one of the baboon's arms with an axe, while Smith grapples with one assassin and beats another to death with a stick.  (Don't worry, Karamaneh fans--she gets some shooting in, actually taking aim at Fu-Manchu himself in the book's action climax!)

The tales in The Devil Doctor are more sensationalistic and exploitative than those in The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu.  At one point Smith just grabs Karamaneh off the street and locks her in his office, and Petrie ties her up on two occasions, one time ripping off some of her clothes to use as a gag.  Early on there is a dreadful scene of torture, with Fu-Manchu using a wire jacket on a missionary, and later on he tortures Smith with rats ("Cantonese rats, Dr. Petrie... the most ravenous in the world...") in a way quite similar to that of O'Brien, who uses rats on another Smith in Room 101 in George Orwell's 1984, published over three decades later.

The Devil Doctor, of course, portrays Asians as a bunch of torturers and murderers, but there is another facet to its xenophobia, an element of anti-Semitism.  Early in The Devil Doctor Petrie rides a car through Whitechapel, past a multitude of stalls manned by immigrant Jews from around the world, and Rohmer gives us a long description of how "squalid" the place is, and how the "Jewish hawkers" use "tricks," "legerdemain" and "wit" to sell their wares.  There is a minor character, Abel Slattin, whom Petrie twice describes as "Semitic" and whom Smith considers "a clever scoundrel."  Slattin has an American accent and has come to London from New York, where he has ties to the police department and Chinatown criminals.  Like the merchants in Whitechapel, Slattin is a vulgar money-grubbing businessman--he is fat and "overdressed," wears a diamond ring and has a gold tooth.  He has information about Fu-Manchu, but instead of just reporting it to the authorities like a good citizen he tries to sell it to Smith, while at the same time negotiating with Fu-Manchu, apparently trying to blackmail the Chinese mastermind.

The wraparound cover of an American 1916 edition
One of the things I like about reading these old books is the glimpse they afford of a different culture, a different intellectual world.  Besides the aforementioned racism and sexism, there are Rohmer's references to the Bible, the sculpture of Frederic Lord Leighton, and Madame Blavatsky (Rohmer was, apparently, quite interested in things like theosophy and alchemy.)  I also learned what "hakim" means.  Don't let anyone tell you these crazy books are not educational!

I don't have anything against Chinese people, Jews, or businessmen (has anybody written stories like this about communist villains?  I guess Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night, which I read over a decade ago, qualifies) but I still enjoyed The Devil Doctor.  As I did with The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, I liked the atmosphere, the "Oriental" and science-fiction elements, and I was always curious to see what crazy thing was going to happen next.  In particular I was always wondering what was going on with Karamaneh, and hoping to see her and Petrie get together and live happily ever after. Hopefully I will find that those two crazy kids have settled down to a serene life when I read the third Fu-Manchu book in the near future! 

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