Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

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
One of the things that has made many long hours spent in the Toyota Corolla almost bearable has been The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society. Like much of the Kinks’ work, the album waxes nostalgic about the past and laments changes in culture and society.  In the title song from the album Ray Davies exhorts us to “Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula,” three famous villains of British popular fiction first conceived before the First World War.  Every year there are new books and motion pictures based on or inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but it seems like Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu runs the risk of slipping down the memory hole.  Eager to play my part in preserving this icon of English language pop culture, I clicked over to to check out the body of work of Arthur Henry Ward (birth name of Sax Rohmer), and his most famous character, the diabolical Chinese mastermind who was the world's greatest physician, chemist and biologist, and chose to devote his genius to laying low the white race!

Liner notes to a CD edition of The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society
The first Fu Manchu novel, which I am told collects short stories published in 1912 and 1913 in the British magazine The Story-Teller, was printed in 1913 under the title The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu. The American edition appeared later in the same year with the title The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu; I read an electronic version of this edition. These early Fu Manchu stories also appeared in Volumes 50 and 51 of the weekly U.S. magazine Collier’s, where they were accompanied by extensive illustrations. You can see scans of these issues of Collier’s at the Internet Archive; they are full of fun advertisements for automobiles, tires, revolvers, soap, etc, and well worth a look.

One of many illustrations by J. C. Coll from Collier’s
(I learned most of this stuff at the extensive web pages about Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu maintained by Lawrence Knapp, a college professor in my home state of New Jersey.  Yay, New Jersey!)

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
The episodic novel consists of Smith and Petrie traveling here and there in England, mostly in London but also to a country estate in Norfolk with a high tech (for 1912) security system, trying to foil the multifarious plots of Fu-Manchu to murder or terrorize intellectuals, kidnap and enslave engineers, and steal plans to advanced weapons systems.  Fu-Manchu, Smith tells Petrie, scorns to employ such clumsy and prosaic weapons as knives and guns, but instead pursues his terror and murder campaign with drugs, poison, elaborate traps, and venomous creatures, like a six-inch centipede which one of Fu-Manchu’s agents slips through people's windows.  (Don’t the henchmen of Dr. No in the 1958 James Bond novel kill people by dropping centipedes in their rooms? And doesn’t some assassin employed by Darth Sidious toss centipedes into Queen Amidala’s room in the fifth Star Wars movie?  This certainly indicates a shortage of positive role models for young centipedes in the media, and perhaps the influence of Rohmer on Ian Fleming and George Lucas.)

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 
The thing that jumps out to the 21st-century reader about The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, of course, is its Orientalism and ethnic essentialism.  Almost every chapter includes a sentence that today would get you sent off to diversity training.  It is repeatedly suggested that the Chinese are a particularly cruel people, with Smith saying things like "God help the victim of Chinese mercy!" while Petrie suggests "No white man, I honestly believe, appreciates the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese."  Petrie admits that "the soul of Karamaneh was a closed book to my short-sighted Western eyes," and "that she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality—her history—furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured."

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?"

"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."  
In another scene Rohmer suggests that Scots are superstitious:
 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.)

One of the remarkable elements of The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu is how bland and even boring Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are; his deplorable smoking habits are one of the very few things we learn about Smith as a person.  We are used to genre heroes having some kind of eccentric character or being "larger-than-life."  Conan is an incredibly tough barbarian who makes himself king of a civilized nation, John Carter is immortal and the best swordsman in the Solar System and makes himself Emperor of Mars, Sherlock Holmes has a vast store of knowledge and the ability to figure out the truth from clues nobody else would put together.  In The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu Smith and Petrie are dimly realized, more or less ordinary guys, while Fu-Manchu, a “yellow” man in a white world and a uniquely brilliant and unscrupulous genius, and Karamaneh, a startlingly beautiful woman suspended between the Occident and Orient and scarred by a terrible past, are the interesting, larger-than-life characters.  The stories come to life when these characters appear, and it is often they, not the English characters, who both drive and resolve the plot.  I think we can see this as a literary weakness--why aren't Smith and Petrie as interesting as the Orientals?--or as an artistic choice--this is a novel about the encounter of our own familiar Western world with an alien world, and painting the English characters in dim and pale shades makes the Eastern characters all the more vibrant and lurid.

Obviously some people are going to have ideological objections to The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.  While acknowledging that that is the case, I still thought the novel was fun and would recommend it to people interested in pulp adventure and weird fiction.  The pace is fast, and because Fu-Manchu employs such weird methods, and because sometimes they work, there are surprises; I was always curious as to what bizarre thing was going to happen next. All the "Oriental" elements (like the dacoits and phansigars) and science fiction elements (like Fu-Manchu's advanced medical techniques and experiments with deadly fungi and bacilli) are intriguing, and Rohmer succeeds in generating a sense of unease by painting a picture of a sinister underworld or demimonde that resides below the surface of ordinary modern Western life.  There is the feeling, which I liked, that just a few blocks away from your own boring and safe home and place of work lies an alien danger, a danger to your own individual life and a danger to the very existence of your society.

Sax Rohmer produced thirteen Fu-Manchu novels; I'll probably look into a few more.


  1. Rohmer wrote some good novels. "Brood of the Witch Queen" is a very good horror novel with some remarkable scenes, witnessing dark rituals in an egyptian pyramid and so on.

    Frankly I will never understand the current hand-wringing about pre-war stories. Rohmer created Fu Manchu even BEFORE WWI. What do people think was the general and undisputed consens on foreign politics and the colonies back then? Of course his views about the enemies of the Empire were the official views at the time, nothing more, nothing less. To complain about this is so pointless.

    Petrie and Smith are indeed bland characters. :-)

    1. Brood of the Witch Queen is definitely on my "to be read" list; critics, including Lovecraft, seem to have liked it.

      I don't really let racism and sexism in fiction bother me, but I understand those who are put off by it. I'm one quarter Polish and I grew up and attended university in New Jersey, and sometimes the "Polack" jokes and cracks about New Jersey I hear from New Yorkers, Midwesterners, and Europeans will get under my skin, so I'm in no position to chide Asians who find Rohmer's work offensive.