Over the last several years, I’ve become a pretty reliable consumer of handsome, complete new sets of works by prominent crime and mystery fictionists.
Which is why you’ll find on my office shelves Academy Chicago’s uniform series of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels, Vintage Crime’s paperback collection of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Bantam Books’ reissues of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe yarns (published in double-book volumes), W.W. Norton’s annotated hardcover editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories, and a growing group of Penguin UK’s James Bond yarns, written of course by Ian Fleming, with cover illustrations by Michael Gillette.
Did you read the Rap Sheet’s review of ‘Defending Jacob’ by William Landay?
I never imagined adding to these a stock of Fu-Manchu thrillers. Yet beginning this month, Britain-based publisher Titan Books is bringing all 13 of those classic novels (plus an anthology of briefer fiction) back into print. What’s a collector like me to do, but plunk down hard-earned scratch for the entire run?
Dr. Fu-Manchu, you may recall, was a fiendish and secretive figure who appeared initially in a 1912 short story, and the following year was reintroduced in the novel The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (aka The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu). His creator was Arthur Henry Ward (1883-1959), who is definitely better known to history under the pseudonym “Sax Rohmer.” Born in Birmingham, England, Ward/Rohmer tried on life as a civil servant, found it not to his liking and so embarked on a full-time writing career. He struggled to pen poetry and comedy sketches before finally selling a short story, “The Mysterious Mummy,” to a magazine in 1903. His standalone novel Pause! was published anonymously in 1910. He would later develop fiction around both an occult investigator named Moris Klaw and a Paris police detective, Gaston Max. However, it was his Fu-Manchu tales that made Rohmer one of the early 20th century’s highest-paid wordsmiths.
The account of how he came to compose action-packed mysteries about a diabolical Asian criminal has been recited in so many ways, over so many decades, it’s well-nigh impossible to dissect fact from fable at this late date. According to one version, Rohmer’s wife consulted a Ouija board on the question of how he might best make a living. The answer was spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N. In The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery, Bruce F. Murphy wrote that Rohmer “had been fascinated by the East and in the occult since childhood...; his forays into the Limehouse district of London (the Chinese quarter) and his friendships there gave him material for the Fu-Manchu series. Rohmer said that one foggy night, he saw a Chinese man with a woman who appeared to be Arab leave a car and go into a cheap-looking house, and this inspired Fu-Manchu.”
Maybe those anecdotes are true. Maybe not, but they make for a good story, and good stories were what readers came to expect from Rohmer.
It helped that, in Fu-Manchu, he offered an exotic and captivating protagonist. The so-called Devil Doctor is described in The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu as being “tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green.” (Interestingly, the Fu-Manchu of the books didn’t sport the droopy mustache we’ve come to associate with him. That change was apparently made when the character became a staple of motion pictures.) Rohmer added that Fu-Manchu is “a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of today can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius.”
The image of a powerful mastermind from the East wrecking havoc on the West capitalized on fears, rampant during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the mass immigration of Asians to the United States and Western Europe threatened the wages and standards of living among Caucasians. Dr. Fu-Manchu, Rohmer warned early on, was the very embodiment of this “yellow peril.” He moved through society mostly undetected and unhindered, as the assassins, seductive female agents and other malefactors on his payroll sought to remove or undermine world leaders—whatever it took to leave Fu-Manchu as the last sovereign standing. Only in a sort of roving police commissioner, Denis Nayland Smith, and his friend, Dr. Petrie—who served as Rohmer’s less-interesting surrogates for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson—did Fu-Manchu find much in the way of worthy opponents.
No wonder Rohmer’s early readers snapped up his books. He was feeding their xenophobic fears back to them in the form of gripping melodrama.
Almost 100 years since the publication of the first Fu-Manchu book, and 43 years after the last one—1959’s Emperor Fu-Manchu—reached bookshops, most people won’t approach these stories with the same biases and anxieties. The author’s offhand racist and sexist remarks will seem anachronistic; occurring infrequently, they shouldn’t distract greatly from the action. More striking—and certainly evident in the first two of Rohmer’s novels being reissued by Titan: The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu and 1916’s The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu—are the links between Rohmer’s Chinese architect of anarchy and Conan Doyle’s nefarious Professor James Moriarty, as well as between Fu-Manchu and both Ming the Magnificent, comic-book hero Flash Gordon’s principal nemesis, and Dr. Julius No, the Chinese-German antagonist in Fleming’s 1958 novel, Dr. No.
Its decision to slowly roll out new editions of the entire Fu-Manchu series is something of a gamble for Titan Books. Can Rohmer’s influential model of fictional villainy find a substantial audience in our modern age of real, rampant terrorists?
My own Ouija board says M-A-Y-B-E.