The first of Sax Rohmer’s classic Fu Manchu series, it was originally published in novel form in Great Britain in 1913 as The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, collecting a series of short stories published in 1912. As a novel, the work contains thirty chapters, but, like others in the series, is more or less a series of semi-related, episodic story arcs of roughly a half-dozen chapters each. It is firmly in the “Yellow Peril” genre of literature, and indeed, encapsulates – if not originates – most of the tropes we associate with this kind of work. The Oriental mastermind Fu Manchu has spawned countless imitators and representations in films, books, radio shows, comics, and art. From our perspective in the twenty-first century, you may find the anxiety-ridden Orientalism present in the novels deplorable, but you should at least take a look and see why this literature has resonated so strongly for decades. This first in the series is a good place to begin those explorations.
Spoilers ahead – continue onward at your own peril.
The book begins with a fateful meeting between the narrator, Dr. John Petrie, a seemingly ordinary British physician, and his old friend, Denis Nayland Smith, another British gentleman who has served for years as a roving special police commissioner in Burma and elsewhere in Asia. This meeting, and the threats and perils our protagonists encounter, set the stage for the rest of the series. The pair are very much in the Holmes and Watson tradition, save that instead of Holmes’ special powers of observation and deduction, Nayland Smith enjoys an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Oriental and the ability to command the aid and support of pretty much all British government officials. Petrie brings his knowledge of medicine, chemistry, forensics, and he’s a crack shot with his revolver as well. In some of the later adventures in this novel, they are assisted by the doughty Inspector Weymouth of New Scotland Yard. The novel begins with Nayland Smith and Petrie’s investigation into the mysterious (locked-room style) death of Sir Crichton Davey who, as it turns out has been killed by the enigmatic “Zayat Kiss,” feared throughout the Orient. We learn that Nayland Smith is hot on the trail of the inscrutable Chinese mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, sometimes not), who is also behind Davey’s death, among many other crimes. Who is Fu Manchu? I will let Nayland Smith provide his iconic answer:
“Imagine a person, 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. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” (Chapter Two)
In their first outing, there is undercover work in an opium den, a death trap, unexpected aid from Karamaneh (a reluctant female servant of Fu Manchu’s who will come to play a much larger role in the series), and the escape of Fu Manchu. Our protagonists next become involved in the minor affair of saving the life of an Episcopal clergyman, who was involved tangentially in the Boxer Rebellion but is now threatened by Fu Manchu for his actions in China. Then they are brought in to investigate the attempted murder of explorer and naturalist Sir Lionel Barton (these British noblemen don’t seem to have a very high life expectancy, do they?) Nayland Smith and Petrie also face Fu Manchu’s use of the dread Call of Siva, seemingly a kind of compulsion to suicide that Fu Manchu has mastered, among other outré threats.
I don’t want to provide too many spoilers so will forego running through the rest of the novel’s plot bit-by-bit, but the constant dueling with Fu Manchu as his various plots are discovered and narrowly thwarted continues. Time after time, Fu Manchu acts through agents (human and exotic animal alike) or, when forced to act himself, manages to narrowly escape, usually by gaining the upper hand over Nayland Smith or Petrie at the last second. One ally of the pair suffers a truly horrific fate, but again, no horrendous plot spoilers here.
In addition to Fu Manchu’s virtual menagerie of hideous and deadly animal and human assassins, he is also a master of chemistry who uses poison gas and, as we will see as the series advances, a variety of other fantastical elixirs unknown to modern science. He is also a cruel master of torture, to include the “wire jacket,” which I will not describe here except to say that the book contains passages with real menace and true horror. To be sure, the language is at times stilted, but it’s still capable of evoking feelings of atmospheric dread and so I found it effective as both thriller and horror novel.
I give this book a strong 4 stars out of 5. Yes, of course, it contains sentiments we now deride as racist. You knew that going into the book. Allow yourself to look past those flaws to see what all the fuss is about and why almost everyone has an idea of who Fu Manchu is. It’s a darn good adventure novel that’s well-plotted and with plenty of twists and turns, frights and horrors. Highly recommended.
Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers