One hundred years after his debut in February 1913's The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer's sinister criminal mastermind remains as memorable and iconic as any character in popular culture. The books alone spanned the decades. Rohmer wrote 14 Fu Manchu novels from 1913 to 1959 followed by a series of continuation novels written by various literary successors. Fu Manchu has been a mainstay in television, radio, comic strips, comic books, and especially films. Boris Karloff, Peter Sellers, and Christopher Lee were the most famous actors to play him. Fu Manchu is credited as being the archetype for subsequent Oriental evil-doers from Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon to Ian Fleming's Dr. No to Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O to the brainwashing scheme in The Manchurian Candidate.
The Fu-Manchu mustache is even named in his honor, although this came from movie portrayals, not Rohmer's literary incarnation.
From the beginning, Fu Manchu has been a figure of controversy. In large part, that's due to complaints about the overtones of "Yellow Peril" racism and British jingoism in the books. After early criticism from the Chinese government about the novels, reportedly protests over the film version of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) included Harvard students asking MGM not to make future films due to a murderous anti-white speech Fu Manchu gave his henchmen. During World War II, the U.S. State Department asked for a similar moratorium as China was an ally in the war. Rohmer's U.S. publisher, Doubleday, refused to publish any books during the war years. Between 1941 and 1948's The Shadow of Fu Manchu, no new adventures were published. But, in one form or another, the doctor keeps rising from the grave to threaten the world again and again.
Beyond the stereotype Fu Manchu has come to represent, Rohmer's writings have been assailed for style as much as content. Critic Owen Dudley Edwards once said Ian Fleming merely elevated the thin stories of Sax Rohmer "from the crude to the lewd." For other critics, Rohmer is the classic model for what not to do in fiction. But if that's the case, then why have generations of readers taken to these books which are rarely out of print? Why is Titan bringing them out yet again?
Take, for example, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the fifth in the series, which came out in 1932, the same year as the film adapted from it. Granted, it's not the best single-volume to be introduced to the good doctor, as it's conspicuously a sequel to The Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931), the book that jump-started the series after a 14-year lapse. Clearly, many situations in Mask, especially character relationships, were established in Daughter. They're not really explained in Mask, but not explaining things is a problem with nearly every aspect of Mask.