Fu-Manchu is a name that stirs up controversy. Horror movie fans are aware that the diabolical Asian character was portrayed onscreen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, two of the genre’s greatest actors – and obviously, Caucasians. Going back to the literary source material, the nefarious villain’s race is a key component in understanding his evil agenda. He is bent on world domination and enslavement of white people. Author Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu series is being reissued by Titan Books and, based on the The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the racist adventures are dated yet intriguing. When put in the historical perspective of circa 1912, the stories pander to the virulent prejudice and fear of the period. And Rohmer not only fervently tapped into a mental state reflecting the time; he encompassed the mindset with abundant action and a sexy romance. This dangerous cocktail of one part bigotry mixed with dashes of danger, and a spritz of a love story, is intoxicating. The reader, while under the influence, is in an addled state of mind. There’s no denying that the book is ethically reprehensible; but it’s hard not to be drawn into the tale, with its whiff of the exotic and the immersive good versus evil mentality. Rohmer’s formula positively smacks of demented genius: He’s as fiendishly cunning as … Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Once one is able to stop counting the numerous pejorative applications of the word “yellow” or the term “Yellow Peril,” there is a fun diversion to be had. In a variation of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson mysteries, Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie (who, like Watson, chronicles the events) find themselves pitted against the Chinese equivalent of Professor Moriarty. The chapters frequently end with Smith and Petrie duped by their nemesis, which partially reflects the serialization/cliffhanger aspect of the works. And often, when facing the imminent danger through the villain’s machinations, the duo are saved by a lovely and seductive woman who is deeply attracted to Petrie.
There is no need to delve into the particulars of the narrative, since they are ephemeral trifles. And before this review gets labeled as a study in schizophrenia (“she loathes the book, she likes the book”) perhaps it’s best to have an expert explain the peculiar attraction of the series. Noted genre editor-annotator Leslie S. Klinger eloquently delineates the allure: “The Fu-Manchu stories combine the demonization of Eastern culture and denigration of effete intellectualism with high adventure and gripping suspense. The emphasis is on fast-paced action set in exotic locations, evocatively described in luxuriant detail, with countless thrills occurring to the unrelenting ticking of a tightly-wound clock. Strong romantic elements and sensually described, sexually attractive women appear throughout the tales, but ultimately it is the fantastic nature of the adventures that appeal.”
Mr. Klinger’s fine distillation is from “Appreciating Dr. Fu-Manchu.” The essay appears in this Titan edition of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, and provides a psychological balm for whatever qualms exist in enjoying the yarn. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is the first Fu-Manchu “novel.” It is a compilation of sequential stories that depended on a regular readership. Sax Rohmer played to his audience. Yet even when taking the narrative in the context of the era in which it was written, the intense hatred that is inherent in its jingoism proves difficult to tolerate. While it’s morally hard to commend this fiction, it still continues to have a life and provide a divertissement. And consequently produces an understandable quandary for a reviewer.
Given all the debate that Rohmer’s text elicits, the cause of his demise can’t help but produce a bitter smile. The writer who championed rampant racism died from a virus which bears an ironic epithet: Clever readers who are guessing “Yellow Fever” will have to settle for “nice try.” In 1959, the author succumbed to Type A Influenza; also known as “The Asian Flu.” Poetic justice? Perhaps.