A few months ago I was trolling the web in search of reading material when I came across a listing for the re-release of Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu by Titan Books. After a look at the very pulpy cover art, I said to myself, “okay, I think I might check this out.” However, already having a free copy (see project Gutenberg’s website for a free download) of The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, I decided to go the cheap (free) route and see what was there.
Note to readers–The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is the same book, with an odd title change for American audiences–why they did that is beyond me. However, I was not around in 1913 to question the publisher, so whatever, I can live with that.
The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu is the story of Denis Nayland Smith, formerly of Scotland Yard and now an agent of the crown, tasked with bringing to justice and/or thwarting the sinister plans of Fu Manchu, a Chinese agent who has left a trail of crime and death from the shores of Burma to the waters of the Thames. A master assassin, thief and alchemist, Fu Manchu leads a criminal regime tasked with undermining the Western Powers (specifically the British Empire) to the benefit of his Chinese homeland.
Smith enlists the help of his old friend Dr. Petrie, and the two embark on a series of adventures with the help of Scotland Yard and the irrepressible Inspector Weymouth that invariably lead to their being outwitted by Fu Manchu, the man Smith continually refers to as one of the greatest criminal minds the world has ever seen.
And that, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with this novel. I went in looking to Nayland Smith and Watson…err, Petrie, as worthy hunters of the good(bad) doctor, instead finding a couple of heroes that continually bumble around throughout the entire novel, only getting close to the villain with the (inexplicable) help of one of Fu Manchu’s own henchmen (in this case, Karamaneh, a beautiful and alluring Arabic girl held in thrall to Fu Manchu by way of threats to her immediate family).
There are decent moments, ones where Nayland-Smith actually uses deductive reasoning to solve the riddle of how a man can break into a seemingly impenitrable room and safe leaving nary a clue, but too much of the novel relies on him remembering “facts” from earlier cases rather than examination of the evidence around him. There is also much too much reliance on lovely Karamaneh, whose sole purpose seems to be to lead the two sleuths around by the nose. Every time Rohmer writes himself into a corner, Karamaneh mysteriously shows up and points the way forward. She is deus ex machina personified, and (to me) a lazy way of progressing the novel.
The book is not without its merits–Fu Manchu (the original caricature of the “Yellow Peril“) is a delightful addition to the pantheon of super villains. Using his considerable intellect and preferred method of assasination (various exotic poisons) Fu Manchu is a master manipulator and a delightfully cunning villain. Too bad he does not have a worthy adversary.
I think the biggest disappointment of the novel is that Fu Manchu does not figure more prominently in the novel. He and his methods are alluded to time and again, but the reader only meets him personally a number of times, and even then, only briefly. I will say that his escape from authorities closing in on his lair is brilliant, and gives a greater understanding of the character’s essential evil than anything up to that point. It’s also what saved the novel for me.
Of course, be forewarned of some obviously racist mindsets while reading this novel. 1913 was a very different time, and, Rohmer’s characters are not in any way politically correct.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (C+)