Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

 

Rohmer 1Sax 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 2Rohmer 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.

Rohmer 3The 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?

Rohmer 5Let’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.

Rohmer 6In 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.

 

John Buchan and The Power-House

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Buchan remarketed in the 1960s as a thriller author

The novel of 1913 that I’m resurrecting from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts is the first modern thriller, The Power-House by John Buchan. This is often overlooked because of its far more famous younger brother, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published two years later in 1915. When Buchan wrote The Power-House, he was still hoping for literary fame. He’d been a writer for nearly twenty years, but his life kept distracting him as he kept looking for the career in intellectual public service that he felt he was destined for, and for which he had been training himself. Politics was getting him nowhere (the 1911 general election, for which he had been groomed as a prospective parliamentary candidate, didn’t happen). He’d tried being a colonial civil servant in South Africa, but didn’t find a new post when his first one ended. He tried journalism, and wrote a great many excellent book reviews and opinion pieces, but only rose to become temporary deputy editor of The Spectator. He had trained as a barrister, but this didn’t seem to draw him in: perhaps the law was too dry and inward-looking, and simply not concerned enough with words as literature.

buchan-5With hindsight, it is perfectly obvious that Buchan was a born writer. What is not so obvious is that, unlike many of his peers, he ignored the tug of words for over fifteen years before being able to write them full-time. Other novelists got their heads down and did this: it was their job. Buchan tended to write his fiction in the evenings of his day job, and perhaps this less intense application showed in the time it took for him to finally get it together and write the novel that the times, and the public wanted. The market and his developing writing style finally came together in the first months of the First World War and burst upon the waiting world in 1915. The Thirty-Nine Steps really was a breakthrough for him, a masterpiece in many ways. What is interesting about the over-shadowed The Power-House was that it was the last novel but one before The Thirty-Nine Steps, and contains many of the elements that made The Thirty-Nine Steps a winner.

It was written while Buchan had been steadily settling into a new career as the literary advisor for Thomas Nelson, a Scottish publisher. He was their talent spotter and editor, and an expert negotiator, but he was increasingly drawn to writing books for them himself. It’s as if he couldn’t stop himself. Buchan had to read a lot of current popular fiction and new novels, to see if they would suit Nelson’s own reprint series, and then handle the negotiations between authors and agents. He couldn’t have thought up a better way to survey the market for fiction if he’d tried. He even knew exactly how to pitch and market his own books: he did this very well with his own books that he wrote for Nelson’s: Prester John in 1910, and the biographies of Montrose and Sir Walter Ralegh a few years later. But with The Power-House, Buchan struck out on his own, and gave the novel (really a novella) to a different publisher, William Blackwood, for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. Why did he do this?

buchan-2With Nelson’s he had a captive publisher he could persuade to give him good terms, and the novel was short enough not to matter too much if it failed, but Buchan was clearly after more than in-house publishing comfort. He wanted independent fame (and who can blame him?) Blackwood’s Magazine was also a lot more prestigious than Thomas Nelson, which was more known for its Christian and children’s lists. Nelson’s was not a natural home for a best-seller, and Buchan really wanted this. Getting his novel in a magazine for its first publication was also very good business. He’d be paid for that publication, and be paid again if any US magazine wanted to do the same (though, as it happened, no other magazine did reprint The Power-House). He undoubtedly expected that afterwards there would be book publication royalties, but for The Power-House these took their time, because Blackwood didn’t do anything with the story until after The Thirty-Nine Steps had had a massive success, and so The Power-House didn’t appear as a book until 1916. This must have been galling, because it proved, once again, that as a novelist Buchan was not considered (by the prestigious but stuffy and old-fashioned House of Blackwood) to be worth much investment. What Buchan needed was a real hit, and a new publisher, and The Power-House did not give him these. After The Thirty-Nine Steps was a smash success for William Blackwood, despite their almost complete lack of advertising or publicity, Buchan’s next novel went to Hodder & Stoughton, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life.

buchan-3So why was The Power-House not the kind of book that Blackwood preferred to invest in? It was not steady, reliable, Victorian or safe. It did not rehash Imperial adventures and colonial values. In fact, it did the opposite. A dastardly spy plot is discovered, and an innocent man is being hunted by wicked foreign conspirators in the exotic and very nineteenth-century adventure playground of the Victorians, Bokhara and the Pamirs. But the central joke behind the novel is that all this conventional drama happens off-stage, while the really thrilling events happen in London, on the narrator’s own doorstep. With The Power-House Buchan invented the thriller that could happen to any one of us. The novel’s narrator, Edward Leithen, is a barrister and an MP, he has easy relations with the police and Embassy staff, he has a chauffeur (this was the early period of driving, when a car routinely needed a driver, because the owner didn’t know how to drive), but for all of this, Edward Leithen is One of Us, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

So the hunted man disappears off to the Russian borderlands to hide from someone or something mysterious, and Leithen is left in London wondering what can be done to help. Small coincidences keep accumulating. Leithen keeps coming across connections between the man who has had to vanish, and a house in south London, a collector of Wedgwood china, his horrible butler, an old trade union embezzlement scandal, and some odd Russian names. He knows they’re connected, but doesn’t find the key until one weekend when he has a car accident in the countryside, and is offered hospitality for the night at a gentleman’s house nearby. As we will find in pretty much all of Buchan’s novels, another coincidence appears, because the gentleman is revealed as the connecting link between all the clues. He is Mr Lumley, the super-intelligent leader of a shadowy international criminal gang who are plotting to bring down western civilisation. The rest of the novel is devoted to the excitement of Leithen’s attempts to stop Lumley, and to stop being assassinated himself.

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one of the best modern covers, from the French Editions de Londres

And this is where Buchan really makes thriller writing new. Edgar Wallace had published a fair few London-based thrillers before The Power-House, but Wallace was ponderous, slangy, sensational, cheap and rather too swiftly dashed off (there‘s a great early 20th-century cartoon in which a bookstall owner offers the ‘midday Wallace’ to a perplexed customer). Buchan was a seriously good classicist, a very well-read son of the manse, and a good historian. He wrote this thriller with the example of Wallace before him, but wearing his learning lightly. He did not sacrifice the breathtaking chases and dramas in tight spots to sloppy plotting or laughable dialogue: he just wrote well, and believably, and fast. Speed is Buchan’s thing: his novels zip along just as his heroes do, and he pares the action down to the essential details which also remain completely memorable.

When Leithen is pursued by persons unknown who are determined to nobble him, he has to find a safe way through crowded London streets. Never have building sites on Oxford Street seemed so dangerous. Never has going to a seedy little restaurant in the East End seemed so worrying. Leithen also has a lot of friends who help him out, and by this London seems less of a huge anonymous city, but a familiar neighbourhood. Because he has friends in high places and low, we accompany him to rare and unusual places throughout the whole adventure.

Re-reading the novel in 1913, preparing to teach it, some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. The anti-German spy fever was at its height at this time, and Buchan does slip in references to a German spy being caught in England; as if this were a commonplace (when in fact no such creatures existed). The Russian angle is also interesting: I don’t know what the Comintern was up to in 1913, or the British-based Socialists, but it’s interesting that Buchan makes one of the chief villains a former union executive. Admittedly he did the union wrong and stole all their money, but there is a suggestion that a trade union would naturally attract that kind of evil swine. Buchan was a Conservative, which shows in the central theme of the novel: that the border between civilisation and anarchy is very thin, and could be broken by the smallest events. Civilisation, in Buchan’s view, was inherently antithetical to all that the forces of the Left, which included anarchy, and trade unions, stood for. He was certainly right that civilisation was about to be broken up pretty thoroughly, only twelve months later, but the threat wouldn’t come from the Left, but from the rotting corpse of ninetenth-century Imperialism.