He was a scientist trained at a great university—an explorer of nature's secrets, who had gone farther into the unknown, I suppose, than any living man. His mission was to remove all obstacles—human obstacles—from the path of that secret movement which was progressing in the Far East.
|British First Edition cover|
|Liner notes to a CD edition of The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society|
One of many illustrations by J. C. Coll from Collier’s
The narrator of The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu is Dr. Petrie, an English physician and friend of Nayland Smith, a civil servant with a "roving commission" and extensive experience in India and China. (I guess this is like how the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories is Dr. Watson, the hero's right hand man.) Smith has just come back from Burma, and is hot on the heels of Dr. Fu-Manchu, a leading member of a secret Chinese movement dedicated to the destruction of the West. Fu-Manchu is in England to neutralize those scholars and government types who have knowledge of this Chinese conspiracy, Smith among them.
"Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe—though I pray I may be wrong—that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission."
|An American edition|
Rohmer is sometimes billed as a "mystery writer" or "detective writer" (check out the cover of Fawcett's paperback edition of Nude in Mink and the cover of the February 15, 1913 issue of Collier's) and in a number of the novel's episodes Fu-Manchu actually succeeds in his schemes. The plots of such chapters consist of Smith trying to figure out how Fu-Manchu, for example, murdered a guy in a room that was locked, or stole plans from a locked safe in an apparently impregnable chamber.
Not only are the British characters sometimes defeated by Fu-Manchu (in one horror scene Smith and Petrie are forced to watch as eight police officers are murdered by a special breed of fungus developed by the Chinese genius), but Smith and Petrie often get themselves into trouble and have to be rescued by a woman! One of Fu-Manchu's slaves is a head-turning beauty, apparently a Bedouin, who goes by the name Karamaneh. Karamaneh's little brother is held hostage by Fu-Manchu, so she is forced to participate in his evil schemes. Luckily for the Western world, Karamaneh falls madly in love with Petrie. (Rohmer never explains what about Petrie attracts her.) So again and again she sneaks away from Fu-Manchu's HQ to give Petrie a clue or save him from death. At one point she actually shoots down some of Fu-Manchu's henchmen; Karamaneh is not only gorgeous, but a cold-hearted dead-eye marksman!
|This paperback depicts Dr. Petrie, |
Karamaneh and her brother, Aziz
Europeans are not immune from this sort of thing. When Smith is considering a disguise for use in infiltrating an opium den, we get this exchange:
"Foster will make your face up. What disguise do you propose to adopt?"In another scene Rohmer suggests that Scots are superstitious:
"A sort of Dago seaman, I think; something like poor Cadby [a young detective already killed by Fu-Manchu.] I can rely on my knowledge of the brutes, if I am sure of my disguise."
Three taps sounded—very distinctly upon the window.
Graham Guthrie started so as to shake the bed.
"It's supernatural!" he muttered—all that was Celtic in his blood recoiling from the omen. "Nothing human can reach that window!"Smith combines now-declasse attitudes about women with Orientalist ideas about "the East" when he gives Petrie advice on how to deal with Karamaneh:
"You don't know the Oriental mind as I do; but I quite understand the girl's position. She fears the English authorities, but would submit to capture by you! If you would only seize her by the hair, drag her to some cellar, hurl her down and stand over her with a whip, she would tell you everything she knows, and salve her strange Eastern conscience with the reflection that speech was forced from her. I am not joking; it is so, I assure you. And she would adore you for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!"This is probably the most sensationalistic and exploitative scene in the book, though the scene with the fungus comes close.
One of the novel’s recurring themes is drugs. Fu-Manchu and his subordinates drug people all the time to take advantage of them, while many characters use drugs recreationally or for quasi-medical reasons. Fu-Manchu himself is an opium addict, one of his British targets, a scholar, is a cocaine addict, and an American engineer, whose blueprints for a torpedo Fu-Manchu hopes to steal, takes sleeping pills every night. (Fu-Manchu replaces his sleeping pills with something more powerful.) For what it's worth, Smith and Petrie smoke tobacco constantly, and Rohmer describes their habit in such a way that makes it repulsive; Smith is a slobby smoker who spills ashes everywhere and apparently never cleans his pipe. I wondered if such information was meant to highlight differences between the villains or heroes, or similarities. (It would be easy for a liberal arts grad student to write about how Fu-Manchu represents "imperial blowback," the colonized seeking vengeance or justice on the colonizer; if Fu-Manchu commits evil, it is because he and his people were victims of the evils of the British, who brought opium to China.)
Sax Rohmer produced thirteen Fu-Manchu novels; I'll probably look into a few more.