The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu

Book review by Deane Barker tags: classic

This was the first of the Fu Manchu novels. It’s over 100 years old, and I’m trying to take that into account when I discuss it.

The book is written from the first person perspective of the British Dr. Petrie. On the first page, his friend Nayland Smith shows up at his house and tells him that he’s on the trail of the mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Smith has returned from Burma, where he was stationed.

Fu Manchu is presented as the ultimate criminal. The book was written during the Yellow Peril, when American’s were concerned that Asians were going overwhelm the country.

Consider:

“He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to pave the way! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”

The book is super-racist – there’s no other way to put it. Asians are depicted as devious agents aiming to subvert the Western world.

For just a moment I realized fully how, with the place watched back and front, we yet were cut off, were in the hands of Far Easterns, to some extent in the power of members of that most inscrutably mysterious race, the Chinese.

The plot of the book is simplistic. Petrie and Smith travel all over England, trying to capture Fu Manchu. They’re aided by a beautiful woman who may or may not be a slave or accomplice of Manchu’s.

I was never quite sure of the motivation of Fu Manchu. At one point, he steals the plans for an “aero-torpedo,” which sounds like an early version of a cruise missile. Later in the book, it’s revealed that Manchu can make people appear dead then revive them (his expertise with chemicals and medicines is emphasized, as that probably fit the Asian exotic-ness of it all). I kept feeling like there was going to be a big reveal of some over-arching plot, but the book seemed content just being a series of episodes.

The book is a product of its time. The writing is a little elaborate, and the plot seems to be just one action or crime scene after another. Petrie and Smith are kind of like Holmes and Watson. My understanding is that Smith becomes the main protagonist in all the Manchu novels.

Of course, in the end, Fu Manchu escapes and the ending is left open. Clearly, Rohmer intended to write this as a series.

I’m glad I read it. I might try some of the movies. There were about a dozen throughout the 20th century – from the 20s through the 60s, staring different actors, made by different studios.

Book Info

Sax Rohmer
308

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