Classics Reissued: Dr. Fu-Manchu
by Sax Rohmer
Titan Books, 2012
When the short story “The Zayat Kiss” by Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (writing under the far catchier pen-name Sax Rohmer) appeared in the popular British magazine The Story-Teller in October of 1912, its intrepid cast of characters – brilliant, driven Denis Nayland Smith and his earnest, plodding chronicler Dr. Petrie foremost among them – found themselves squaring off against a vividly memorable opponent:
“Who is he, sir, exactly, this Dr. Fu-Manchu?”
“I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put upon earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to pave the way! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”
Readers of “The Zayat Kiss” might have felt a bit of deja vu: only a decade earlier, another popular British magazine had run a story by Arthur Conan Doyle featuring that “napoleon of crime,” Professor Moriarty – who just happens also to be opposed in his fiendish ways by the brilliant, driven Sherlock Holmes and his earnest, plodding chronicler, Dr. Watson. Certainly Sax Rohmer did nothing to dispel the rather comfortable level of similarity; his description of the ratiocination-funk Nayland Smith enters when tackling a problem will be instantly recognizable to anybody who’s ever visited 221b Baker Street in their imagination:
In the corner of the big room by the empty fireplace, Nayland Smith lay, with his long, lean frame extended in the white cane chair. A tumbler, from which two straws protruded, stood by his right elbow, and a perfect continent of tobacco smoke lay between us, wafted toward the door by the draught from an open window … Collarless and wearing an old tweed jacket, he had spent the evening, as he had spent the day, in the cane chair, only quitting it for some ten minutes, or less, to toy with dinner.
But there’s one key difference between Doyle’s sleuthing team and the – shall we say ‘homage’? created by Rohmer. Where Holmes was content to intersperse his attention to Professor Moriarty with other matters, Smith and the hapless Petrie dispense with Silver Blazes, speckled bands, and Bruce-Partington plans; they are entirely focused on the weird, evil Devil Doctor, who has long, delicate fingers, a broad, high forehead, and … well, a penchant for nictitation:
Never in my experience have I known such force to dwell in the glance of any human eye as dwelt in that of this uncanny being. His singular affliction (if affliction it were), the film or slight membrane which sometimes obscured the oblique eyes, was particularly evident at the moment that I crossed the threshold, but now, as I looked up at Dr. Fu-Manchu, it lifted – revealing the eyes in all their emerald greenness.
Picture a series of Holmes & Watson stories in which they do nothing but pursue Professor Moriarty and fight his minions and clever devices, and you have the central, animating gist of the dozen or so extremely popular Fu-Manchu books Rohmer turned out after that first short story – a gloriously tawdry, breathless, cheesy, addictive series now given a delightful new incarnation by London publisher Titan Books. In these pages the dreaded “Yellow Plague” of decades past stalks the proper Anglo-Saxon world again, with the evil Doctor constantly seeking covert world domination, much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a character with whom Fu-Manchu shares more than a few traits. Indeed, the Devil Doctor’s nefarious wiles often seem to border on those supernatural realms that were most scorned by Holmes, as when one terrified character in The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu imagines his enemy possesses power over death itself:
“I’ll admit I didn’t look out at once,” Weymouth resumed. “There was something so uncanny, gentlemen, in that knocking – knocking – in the dead of the night. I thought” – his voice shook – “of poor Jack, lying somewhere amongst the slime of the river – and, oh, my God! it came to me that it was Jack who was knocking – and I dare not think what he – what it – would look like!”
The delicious hammy melodrama of that passage can be found on virtually every page of fiction Rohmer ever wrote (like most hacks, he worked hard to be entertaining), and Titan deserves a vote of sincere thanks for so attractively inviting a whole new generation of readers to experience it. That generation of readers will be entirely unfamiliar with these books (when Leslie Klinger, in his essay accompanying the first volume of this series, writes “The stories of Dr. Fu-Manchu appear as immortal as those of Sherlock Holmes,” he must be temporarily under the hypnotic spell of the Devil Doctor), so the meeting is bound to be all the more fertile.
Of course there are unavoidable embarrassments in these pages. Although far, far more people in the world are deathly afraid of the Chinese in 2012 than ever were in 1912, Rohmer’s crude racial stereotypes and hints (or assertions) of Chinese sub-humanity seem not only insulting but quaint: an assassin-employing Chinese mastermind with “a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan” seems almost reassuring when measured against a People’s Republic armed with trillions of dollars of U.S. debt and a full spread of nuclear weapons. This splendid Titan Books reprint series therefore presents us not only with an abundance of cornball entertainment but, like the Holmes stories, with a glimpse into the living mind of a vanished era.
There’s some utterly sincere and beguiling typewriter-rattling going on in Sax Rohmer’s fiction. The vast majority of that fiction will likely stay out of print and forgotten forever, but by whatever curious chemistry, Fu-Manchu’s name has stayed known, and these books were the foundation of that. And as silly or sordid as you might find them, be warned: you’ll keep reading. As though some diabolical force were compelling you …