Sax Rohmer (listen to the podcast of the earlier version of this review here) was obsessed with what he and the lower reaches of the pre-First World War popular British press used to call ‘the Yellow Peril’ (I hope you notice the inverted commas around that phrase). After the war, things began to get less twitchy and close-minded in fiction about the Other – people with different religions and skin colour and who didn’t live in the British Empire. Anti-Semitism and general racism became less overt, and even less necessary to the plots, even in the most formulaic fiction. But the fiction continued, peddling residual values and opinions that formed a layer of familiar views, even if they were not the current views of later readers.
Sax Rohmer was a prolific author in the first half of the 20th century, but is now only remembered for his extraordinary creation of Dr Fu-Manchu, the tall, terrifying and sinister Chinese doctor and chemist who devoted his life to the triumph of the Chinese race and the defeat, in any way possible, of the white race. These phrases are straight from the novel: don’t shoot the messenger. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book without using racist quotes, so please do be reassured that I’m enthusiastic about this novel because of its social history value, and its existence as a piece of cultural flotsam, not because I approve of its racial politics.
Rohmer was a British writer who began his career writing for the music hall before writing novels. He seems to have fostered a reputation for being active in the occult, and certainly wrote a great many novels in the 1920s and onwards that dabbled in mysterious religions. The Fu-Manchu books did not have so much to do with the supernatural or the weird as with basic Imperialism, with a dash of drama based on science. They were serialised in weekly fiction magazines, and were wildly popular, with Rohmer being persuaded after a ten-year break to write more Fu-Manchu novels from the 1930s, until his death in 1959. I’ve only read two or three, but because they were very formulaic, and had a simple structure, I’m going to assume that they shared the same form and delivered the same messages to the readers, who wouldn’t have bought them in such large numbers otherwise.
The narrator of The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (the American title of the novel was The Insidious Fu-Manchu, by the way, if you’re looking for the free download from Project Gutenberg) is Dr Petrie, and he is a medical man, as he often tell us. He is settling down to do some writing one evening, when his old friend Nayland Smith walks in, and the drama begins. Dr Petrie and Nayland Smith are a very obvious Watson and Holmes re-run, right down to the eccentric investigator’s smoking habits, and his ability to make deductions out of nothing. But unlike Sherlock Holmes stories, the pace of the action in this first Fu-Manchu novel is, initially, a headlong torrent. There is no let-up for the reader. It seems as if Rohmer wanted to write an action-packed thriller with a dollop of detection, where the speed of events and the drama were to be the attraction for the reader. There is no time for narrative reflection, but, interestingly, there is a lot of time in Petrie’s narration for repetition, and repeated tirades against the ‘Yellow Peril’ which threatens the entire white race. Reading this fiction now, it seems extraordinary that anyone could have thought in such a way, or even enjoyed the sweeping generalisation, because it is so blatantly all for effect, not for sense, rationality, or even plausibility. And that’s where the interest in novels like this lie: people liked this kind of writing, and bought it to read for pleasure. What does that tell us about what their enjoyment was based on? And should we read this stuff today?
Let’s go back to the plot. Nayland Smith is a civil servant, an old Burma hand, back in England on leave because he knows that Dr Fu Manchu has reached these shores, and is going to do evil and terrible things. The plot progresses as Petrie follows Nayland Smith from one locked room mystery to another, in which Eastern experts die in horrible and inventively implausible ways. It’s interesting that the power and secret knowledge that the East wants is located in the West. There is no shortage of knowledge in the East, as well as secrecy, glamour, villainy and multitudinous deadly methods: it’s astonishing how much nonsense was laid at the East’s door that the readers of the West were willing to believe. Again, that’s something worth thinking about: why did readers fall for such claptrap, even if only at the level of reading cheap and entertaining fiction?
Dr Fu-Manchu is always at the back of the devilish crimes in this novel, which are usually based on abstruse chemistry, poison left waiting, or inhaled, or delivered by an insect. The point of all the deaths is that Fu-Manchu is trying to destroy the West’s ascendancy. Because America was an important market for British fiction, the idea that Fu-Manchu was taking on the British Empire didn’t last long in the narrative, and ‘the West’ and ‘the white race’ were trumpeted as his bitter enemies, thus involving the American reader in the attempt to whip up hate and demonise Asian characters.
By killing off Eastern experts Fu-Manchu denies their services to ‘the white West’, but sometimes he wants their services himself. So he invents a drug that will produce the appearance of death, but when an antidote is injected, the victim recovers. This happens in the nick of time in the case of engineering genius Lord Southery, shortly after he has been put in his coffin and parked in the mausoleum, but not before his burial. Good thing Nayland Smith and Petrie got there in time to open the vault at midnight, in the moonlight, and administer the antidote. This episode is a blatant steal from Dracula, from only twenty years earlier. I expect the readers loved it for that reason.
In another case, Petrie is taken to see the recovery of an Egyptian boy, Aziz, because the boy’s sister, the lovely Karamaneh, has been vamping Petrie from the moment she appears in the book. She wants Petrie to help her escape from Fu-Manchu’s clutches, and so she keeps appearing in exotic outfits wearing a highly traceable scent, to tell Petrie to come with her secretly and not tell Nayland Smith, and the poor fool does it every time. He is really a very unprofessional sidekick, constantly getting himself into danger, and never learning from his mistakes. Karamaneh starts off as just a glamorous villain, but Rohmer seems to have changed his mind about her quite quickly, possibly because he had such a good time writing about Petrie’s susceptibility. Petrie even thinks about marrying her, but in the end, she and her brother sail back to Egypt, and Nayland Smith gives Petrie an ambiguous mission to Egypt as well, to encourage the readers to buy the next instalment.
Nayland Smith himself is a peculiar creation: very given to histrionics, to striding up and down ceaselessly, to spilling his tobacco all over the carpet, to gripping his knuckles until they are white, and so on. Demonstrative sort of cove, as a P G Wodehouse character might have said. He is the high-handed lone detective working independently from the police, with such fine-tuned investigative instincts that he develops a supernatural awareness of the presence of Fu-Manchu. He is an Empire sniffer dog with a specialism in the mysterious East. But Nayland Smith is also closely associated with the East himself, because he is an old Burmese hand, and one of his most frequently-used descriptive characteristics is his Burmese sunburn. The idea of a ‘good’ East and a ‘bad’ East is something that Rohmer doesn’t do anything to develop – it’s not that kind of novel – but it’s certainly there, waiting for attention. There is also a morally-weighted doubling of doctors. Petrie keeps telling us that he is a ‘medical man’, that he risks losing his licence from the BMA if he resuscitates Aziz. He keeps taking personal charge of all the rescued victims of Fu-Manchu who still need care, so he is the good doctor, a ‘physician of the white races’. Fu-Manchu is the evil doctor, also a non-white doctor, and thus pagan and unprincipled.
The ordeals that Fu-Manchu puts Petrie and Nayland Smith through are wildly imaginative, probably the main attraction of the Fu-Manchu novels. The first part of the novel has them tackling the aftermath of locked room mysteries, and wrestling with monkeys, Indian bandits and giant centipedes. We’ve come across these before, in James Bond and Indiana Jones films, so I expect that Sax Rohmer was their original inspiration. But in the second part of the novel, when Fu-Manchu turns his attention to Nayland Smith and Petrie directly, they are imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and then trapped in a cave full of giant psychotropic fungi and phosphorescent mushroom growths that eat people. You really can’t get better than that for thrilling, extraordinary, ludicrous entertainment, even if the quality of the prose is a bit pedestrian, and the politics entirely beyond the pale. So although I’m not recommending Sax Rohmer as a top novelist, and I’m certainly not recommending the Fu-Manchu novels as a sophisticated literary experience, these novels have energetic and wildly inventive methods for dealing death to our unstoppable detective heroes. Just leave your political correctness at the door.