The Mystery Of Dr Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer

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Winter in London. It is a time of damp fog, open fires, the encroaching dark and I’m A Celebrity on TV. It is a time, in short, for The Mystery Of Dr Fu Manchu. Sax Rohmer (not his real name) chose to set this first story in the series in the summer: what a total amateur. Dr Fu Manchu is a criminal mastermind working to subjugate the west by using poisonous animals, wily dacoits and unknown chemicals to murder China experts in England (no, really). The only man who knows of his plans for western domination is uber-cop Nayland Smith, recently returned from Mandalay. ‘Of [Fu Manchu’s] face…I despair of writing convincingly,’ says Smith’s friend and amanuensis Dr Petrie. Fortunately Petrie gets a grip and explains that the Chinaman walks like an awkward cat, has bright green eyes and a brow like Shakespeare. It’s pretty specific, and would make quite a photofit. But the police – especially the habitual dunce Smith – are usually way, way behind ‘the most elusive being ever born of the land of mystery’. And even when they surround him, he gets away. Memo to Smith and Petrie: Fu Manchu’s floors are usually trap doors. Don’t fall for it a third time. Rohmer’s success came in part through tapping into the Sinophobia of the time. In his excellent history 1913, Charles Emmerson points out that the Boxer Rebellion of 1903 (in which foreigners were massacred in China) ‘would be no more distant than the events of 9/11 are today’. This is significant since Rohmer’s novel was published in 1913 and its readers would have been quite taken with the idea of a ‘great yellow hand stretching out over London’. Several times Rohmer interrupts the narrative to have Petrie muse on how awful it would be if Fu Manchu succeeds in his dastardly plots, thus upsetting ‘the balance which a wise providence had adjusted between the white and yellow races’. It’s interesting to see how much British attitudes to China have changed in the intervening century or so: the answer is probably not a lot. Like the demon king in a particularly ambitious pantomime, Fu Manchu disappears in a ball of flame at the end. But he’ll be back. Otherwise where’s the fun?

 

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