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.
For one thing, much of the action takes place offstage without the narrator witnessing much of it. As with many Fu Manchu books, the puppet master is a shadow in the background pulling strings but rarely visible himself. In Mask, for example, Fu Manchu is not even mentioned for 73 pages.
This means most of the attention is given to the cast of heroes, but even here we lack much explanation. The ongoing adversaries of Fu are again Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Flinders Petrie, the poor man’s version of Holmes and Watson. In Mask, Smith is called on to solve one Holmes-like mystery, but in much of the rest of the story he too is off-stage, investigating troubling circumstances in Islamic communities out of our narrator’s sight.
As with Daughter, that narrator is Shan Greville, who’s not exactly a colorful adventurer. He’s engaged to Rima, the niece of Orientalist Lionel Barton. Speaking of inexplicable, apparently Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah lo Suee, is also in love with Greville, even though she admits he’s not very clever. Rohmer doesn’t give us much of a description of her beyond Greville’s apparent fascination with her alluring instep. Her primary purpose is to serve as bait. First, Greville gets a fleeting glimpse of her and chases after her, only to realize too late it was a trap. While Fu has nasty business to conduct with Greville, it’s clear Fah Lo Suee will allow no harm to come to him. Some 30 or so pages later, Greville again hears her voice in an abandoned house (how did she know he would come there?) and he falls trap to her wiles a second time. No, he’s not clever.
The story involves Barton’s discovery of the sacred relics of El Mokanna, namely a mask, sword, and gold plates. An Islamic cult believes a masked prophet would someday appear with these items, and he would lead them in an uprising. Naturally, Fu Manchu wants the relics. To do so, he employs an arsenal of arcane drugs (one has returned his youth), killer dervishes, metal dissolvers, kidnapping, and drug-induced amnesia. Against him, Nayland Smith has created a fake mask, sword, and plates. This forces Fu to steal the artifacts twice.
The plot has the cast go from Persia to Egypt to England by way of a sea voyage where a sea-plane drops by to pick up a swimming artifact thief in the ocean. Make sense? Along the way, the plot holes are numerous. For example, Manchu arranges for a hostage exchange in the Great Pyramid. But Smith’s forces have the site surrounded by police. After the exchange, Manchu mysteriously escapes. How? After the exchange, Manchu makes one appearance to the crowds wearing the mask and holding up the sword. But suddenly, the crowd and the cult melt away as they realize the relics are fakes. From afar, how could they tell? After all, it takes a team of British experts to point out the reverse switch to Barton and company who didn’t realize they were displaying phony artifacts.
Well, no one ever said this sort of stuff has to make sense. But, again, what would be the attraction for readers in the 21st Century?
For me, the Fu Manchu books were something of a mirror to another contemporary series of British adventures, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond stories. Both series were typical of their times with independent adventurers taking on criminal masterminds who used more or less the same devices to get their way—hypnotism, poisonous spiders and snakes, new explosives, concealed knives and darts, and alluring dragon ladies. In the better Drummond books, the cast of heroes is entertaining as Bulldog and his gang are full of energetic vim and devil-may-care vigor. Their opponents were, even then, rather two-dimensional cookie-cutter schemers.
On the other side of the glass, readers are fascinated by Fu Manchu, even if his physical presence is limited. Unlike Drummond’s boisterous crew, Nayland Smith and Petrie are clearly copied from Conan Doyle. The gullible Greville and the others are manipulated and maneuvered by what Manchu does rather than initiate any action of their own.
So it’s the figure of Oriental evil, then, that must be the draw: “tall, lean,
and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green.” Never forget that Fu Manchu is a gentleman in the early 20th Century meaning of the term. At the end of Mask, where other villains would have vengeance on their minds, Fu Manchu sends Greville an expensive wedding present. Clearly, Fu and the gang will return to fight another day.
As mentioned before, The Mask of Fu Manchu is probably not the best first novel for new readers, but I’m not qualified to suggest which one would be. Perhaps Daughter? That one remains in my memory from long ago when I thought Rohmer was blending Conan Doyle and John Buchan. Me, I’d stick to those writers, throw in some Sapper, and not spend a lot of time with Fu Manchu. I’m in the mood to re-read Dr. No—lewd is more fun than crude.