The Devil Doctor by Sax Rohmer

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Oh, lordy. Dr. Fu-Manchu is at it again. The Yellow Peril is back in The Devil Doctor, two years after being apparently burned to death in a cottage in suburban south London. Of course he’s back, he’s fireproof. Only the tanned, gritty Nayland Smith and his sidekick Dr. Petrie can stop him. Fu-Manchu is an intellectual titan as well as being a criminal mastermind, which makes it puzzling that he would think Petrie is a brilliant adversary – because Petrie is, frankly, a bit of a booby. He squeaks like a schoolgirl at the first sign of trouble and spends most of the book mooning like a love-sick adolescent over Karamenah, Fu-Manchu’s lovely helper, whose motives are (in even the most generous interpretation) at best highly ambiguous. I doubt that even his mother would have said Sax Rohmer is a great writer. ‘Two fellow-men moved upon the border of a horror-land!’ he says at one point. It barely makes sense, but Rohmer goes in for this sort of florid guff quite a bit. It is as though the tale of an evil genius Chinaman bent on world domination with the aid of a trained marmoset is not fantastic enough by itself – and there is something admittedly admirable in an author who unashamedly lays sensation on with a gold-plated, gargantuan trowel whenever he gets the chance. His prose also reflects the casual racism of the time. Still, he propels his narrative forward and it does not lack incident. A short trip to Somerset gives Rohmer the chance to flex his weather-describing muscles. There is a haunted house in Hampstead, an ocean liner in the Mediterranean. At one point a white peacock comes along. In one of the films, Fu-Manchu’s secret lair turns out to be under the police HQ. I always assumed this was dramatic licence, but in fact it is faithful to the spirit of the stories. One base is in an antiques shop near the British Museum. Escape is by the aid of a zip wire. Smith and Petrie always get away, even when they can’t possibly do so – but then again, so does Fu-Manchu himself. The story is rubbish. But entertaining, highly readable rubbish.

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