At last they were truly face to face – the head of the great Yellow movement, and the man who fought on behalf of the entire white race.
In this book, Nayland Smith, agent for the British government, along with his trusty sidekick, Dr. Petrie, attempt to foil Dr. Fu Manchu, sinister figure of the Chinese underground, in his efforts to take over England and, possibly, the whole of Europe. The battle with the evil Fu Manchu will take Smith and Petrie across England, from quiet country estates where murder lurks in the shadows to the smoky depths of opium dens where every step may lead to a deathtrap to the very dungeons of Manchu’s evil organization. Will Smith and Petrie be able to overcome the Yellow Peril?
Rohmer was an author of pulp novels of varying stripes; he wrote supernatural horror, spy novels and various other kinds of books, but it was with the invention of Fu Manchu that he had his greatest success. Between 1911 & 1913, a series of short stories about Dr. Fu Manchu were released; in 1913, the stories were collected into this book, which was a huge hit. Rohmer wrote two more books in the series and then walked away from the character, stating that he, rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, had begun to feel trapped by his most popular character. But, as with Doyle & Holmes, the character won and Rohmer returned to the character some fourteen years later with a fourth book. When the series wrapped in 1959, there were thirteen novels total. The character of Fu-Manchu has appeared in a variety of films: a series of serials in the 1920s, an iconic Boris Karloff film in the 1930s, a series of Christopher Lee films in the sixties and a parody film starring Peter Sellers, in his last film appearance, as both Manchu and Smith.
Okay, so, in case it isn’t already entirely clear, this is one of the most racist books I’ve ever read. And I’ve read The Lair of the White Worm. It’s a book that’s very much about the fear of the white upper class of Europe and their fear of immigration. I mean, that’s really what it’s about. Fu Manchu and his band of murderers represent a threat to everything held dear by the main character, Nayland Smith. The physical descriptions of the Chinese characters in this book are everything you fear they’re going to be. They draw a physically grotesque picture: sallow skin, slanted eyes, protruding foreheads, claw-like hands . . . there’s even a hunchback. And there’s an amoral quality that’s terrifying as well. Manchu and his henchmen draw the line at nothing. They murder with impunity, torture without compunction, drive people to insanity with drugs and torture. There’s a gripping and disturbing scene where Manchu leads a group of police officers into a trap and then releases poison gas into the hall where they’re trapped. He literally laughs and screams with delight as the men die; Rohmer goes into great detail as to the horrible convulsions of the body, the frothing mouths, etc. Even the one sympathetic “foreign” character is treated in a really stereotyped and clichéd fashion. She’s a slave to Fu Manchu who falls madly in love with Dr. Petrie after a single meeting. Smith tells Petrie that this kind of insane infatuation is “typically Oriental.” Regardless, she then attempts to help Smith and Petrie in their efforts while acting as a sort of double agent inside Manchu’s organization. But her beauty is described in terms of the harem; it’s her intoxicating foreignness that Petrie is attracted to. And her conversations with Petrie reveal that she wants him to possess her in, shall we say, colonial ways: she’s forever asking him to control her, to imprison her, etc. etc. And this is the way the novel treats its most sympathetic foreign character.
But I think the most troubling thing about this book is really . . . just how good it is in almost every other way. I mean to say that it’s pulp at its most visceral and thrilling. It’s easy to see where the short story breaks were originally; every three or four chapters, there’s a bit of a break in the action and a new story begins. But Rohmer’s prose is muscular and vibrant. He puts you in the action in a genuinely thrilling way. A story in which police officers are being murdered and found with their right hands mutilated builds to a really gripping climax in which Petrie is thrown into a water trap; as he flounders amidst the rising waters in pitch black, I think it’s impossible not to get both a thrill and a chill. A section in which Smith and Petrie, both unarmed, are pursued across a deserted beach by three killers with machetes is just unbelievably intense; the climax of the scene, a desperate fight for life in a darkened, deserted cabin on the beach is brilliantly written. There’s a scene in which a drugged Petrie has a strange hallucination of Fu-Manchu’s lair and it’s as vividly written and memorable as any drug trip scene I’ve ever read, full of strange surreal detail and an odd feeling of shifting reality.
Rohmer does a really canny thing in keeping Fu Manchu off screen for long sections of the book. We catch our first glimpse of him over fifty pages in and it is literally that, a glimpse of a figure through the smoke and chaos of a burning building. It isn’t until the end of the book that we spend significant time with him and for all the racism built into the character Rohmer did indeed create a really compelling, terrifying character. There are even a few surprises. Late in the book, a likable supporting character is accidentally poisoned by Manchu; Manchu then risks capture in order to bring him an antidote, stating that, as he was not the intended target of the poisoning and Manchu has no need for him to die, he feels honor bound to cure him since he has the power to do so. Moments like that hint at something beyond the one-dimensional villain of the rest of the book. But there’s another smart thing that Rohmer does. He makes Fu Manchu ultimately far more intelligent and cunning than Smith & Petrie. Our heroes are constantly on the back foot; many of the people they attempt to protect are murdered under their very noses and when captured by Fu Manchu they escape, both times, via the intervention of an outside force, not through any intelligence or strength of their own. At one point, Smith muses that Fu Manchu’s defeat in one particular instance is down purely to luck, not any skill or intelligence on his part. It’s odd for heroes in a pulp novel to be this ineffectual, but it gives the reader a sense that Smith & Petrie are desperately overmatched and that Manchu is exactly the kind of character Rohmer wants him to be, a shadowy, canny puppet master, present even in the moments you feel safest, unstoppable, smarter, faster, more dangerous than you can imagine. It all builds to make Manchu nothing short of a genuinely great villain.
Ultimately, I . . . well, I really loved the experience of reading this book. It’s short, atmospheric and moves like a house on fire. It has the feel of heroes battling long odds and its villain is memorable, frightening and compelling. It’s a book that swept me up in a non-stop adventure; the book rarely pauses for a breath – it’s a rush of a book, always in a dash toward or away from some danger. So what do I do with this, a virulently, unpleasantly racist book that is also incredibly entertaining and wonderfully executed? Well, I guess I say that about it. It is what it is. The racism was so unpleasant that it did pull me out of the book at times. I suppose you might say it exasperated me when it would come up in a particularly awful way because of the way it was breaking into my pleasant experience of the book with unpleasant sentiments that upset me. Still, it is of its time and these kinds of things crop up in a lot of art, though, as I said above, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a work of art this entirely founded on and shot through with racism. Your mileage will vary, decidedly. I kind of have to recommend it though; it’s a thrilling book no question and, if you can divorce yourself emotionally from it enough, a fascinating look at institutionalized racism from not even a hundred years ago.
3 ½ stars.
So, this book appears on two of my genre lists, so I’ll briefly discuss both of them.
Horror? Espionage? Most definitely horror, despite the fact that there’s nothing supernatural here. The book attempts to make you suspect that Manchu has supernatural powers at various moments. There’s a great section where Smith has been cursed in the same way a series of other murder victims were and the section of Smith and Petrie sitting alone in their darkened room, awaiting the curse is really taut and suspenseful and the ultimate deliverer of the curse is quite creepy and disturbing. And there’s plenty of talk about torture, though we never actually see any. The scene of Manchu excitedly murdering a bunch of policemen is disturbing and scary. It’s definitely a creepy book, very atmospheric; you know, mysterious sounds are heard in the darkness around the English estate kind of thing. As to espionage, I’d give it a nod. Smith is a government agent and it’s got a lot of intrigue and double-agent stuff going on. Manchu isn’t, I don’t think, affiliated with the Chinese government, but that’s a small quibble. It’s definitely a rollicking adventure with plenty of action.
Okay, next time, we’ll jump up to 1915 to read the one and only book from that year to make my horror list. And it’s the first book on this list that I’m betting a lot of people reading this have read, probably in school; even if you haven’t read it, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Join me next time for The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.