I first read Saxe Rohmer’s books about Fu Manchu when I was a teenager. I don’t know how I came to them. I found them entertaining. I gave little thought to the comprehensive view except that it was a lively read.
Years later I read one, just to see if it held up. I found it compelling, and gave thought about the nature of the series. I’m still thinking.
I don’t know what kind of audience the novels have. I suspect that the name Fu Manchu rings a bell for many, perhaps only for the mustache. I don’t believe there’s been any revival like with Conan. There have been Fu Manchu movies—Christopher Lee has played him, I think—but nothing like Sherlock Holmes. The character type, diabolical genius from the mysterious East, has been used to a fare-thee-well, Fu Manchu unnamed. It somehow touches something.
Racism is part of that something. We define evil as what we don’t know or understand. We imagine conspiracies and plots by an inscrutable enemy. Kind of lazy, kind of ugly. Fu Manchu represents a consummate political bogie man.
The books are a sort of relentless imitation of Sherlock Holmes. Whereas Holmes is a genius, apt nemesis to the masterminds he tangles with, Sir Denis Nayland Smith is a bit of a dud versus Fu Manchu. Nayland Smith is a bulldog but always seems to be outfoxed by Fu Manchu. And yet, every round ends up won by Nayland Smith, or at least not won by Fu Manchu.
Like Holmes, Nayland Smith has a sidekick, Dr. Petrie. Petrie sometimes carries a pistol and an electric torch. That is his job, plus narrate events in hyper gasp. He ends up marrying Fu Manchu’s daughter, whaddya know. I don’t know wherefore but Petrie later gets replaced by a young journalist, Bart Kerrigan.
Nayland Smith is a government investigator, expert in foreign affairs. Nothing more foreign than the Asian menace. Rohmer describes Nayland Smith’s manner of speech with verbs like rap and snap, which I take are synonymous. Resume writers take note, Rohmer is a caution with the action words. Sir Denis also frequently raps his inevitable pipe, and he snaps his fingers irritably.
Sir Denis always seems on the brink of desperation in his battles with the evil genius. He and Petrie rush about trying to find leads, chase minions, and lay traps for The Doctor. The minions are sadly disgraceful. In one book, a short, powerful Burman, which I think means Burmese, is referred to as subhuman. Immensely strong but Asian zombie in his blood. Yellow Race/Yellow Peril. A very minor character is described in ugly Jewish caricature. I suppose this is all normal for the time and place. Fu Manchu himself is rendered as diabolical, sinister, and the Devil incarnate. He’s a wee bit crazy, too.
Fu Manchu has moments of elegant sanity. I imagine Ian Fleming learned from Rohmer some things about monomaniacal masterminds intent on controlling the world. Fu Manchu always manages to set up a fully-equipped hide out in a dank riverside warehouse or an abandoned house in a bog. Nayland Smith and Petrie come very close to succumbing to The Doctor when some lucky mischance by Fu Manchu causes his plans to fail and he must flee. The Doctor’s return remains a perpetual threat. A grudging admiration exists between Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu. The Doctor also admires Petrie, mostly for being a fairly ordinary bloke.
The stories are all the same, but that doesn’t matter. We have this Manichean battle to witness. And it is all done with action verbs. These books are comprehensive in the focal demands of their racist congeries. And yet, Nayland Smith is so overmatched that you have to admire his doggedness versus this ultimate mastermind and his mindless minions. It’s like some do-gooder trying to bring the Koch brothers into a rationale of compassion.
The book cover of The Drums of Fu Manchu offers a collage of events in the book. The top of this emblem is the face of Fu Manchu. He looks crazed and provoked. Rohmer describes him as being tall and having green eyes, or maybe it is just his daughter with the verdant eyes. He wears a mandarin hat. Below him to the left is Scotland Yard, I guess, or Big Ben. The stakes. To the right, a guy in a striped shirt smooches a red haired hottie. The James Bond School of Relationship. They are Bart Kerrigan, journalist, and Ardatha, daughter or grand daughter of FM. I guess this is a scene from the book. Below to the left is someone aiming a rifle, presumably Nayland Smith. Finally NS with a knife to his throat—grey at the temple gives him away—tho it was Kerrigan who suffered the threat, which Ardatha saved him from.
The back cover features a small b&w of Rohmer sitting uncompromisingly on a desk in his library. He has a pipe in his mouth and wears a silk long robe. Nice!
If I can come to a bottom line, I like the energy of the narrative. Conan Doyle certainly knew how to raise the heart rate, in stories that often featured a 2-bit thievery, and Rohmer may top him. The racist figurines and the confident English rectitude conflate into a passion play of redemption, not that anything can possibly be redeemed in this murk. The noble intent of saving one’s class from the influence of Other allows mindlessness to flourish with a graceful radical. No, we are not beans in warm soil, we are the heroes of our small disposition.