Sunday, May 31, 2009

Premature Book Review: The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu

"...This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is an 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 to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant."

I came upon this book completely by accident while looking for a Kindle download. The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manch by Sax Rohmer was written in 1913. The character of the Doctor (the villain) is a well known monster, nearly as famous as Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. Few know of Nayland Smith, the hero, but Dr. Fu-Manchu has been immortalized by the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Sellers.

So far, the book reads like a cheesey James Bond rip-off. The plot is predictable and some of the methods and dialogue are ridiculous. Also, there is a lot of what we would consider to be highly racist these days. Much of this we must forgive because the book is nearing one-hundred years old. There was no James Bond to rip-off in 1913, nor were there other spy novels (none I know of). The ridiculous method for assassination we have seen so far is straight out of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but again the book is the predecessor. As for the racism, there is plenty of that in the literature of the time. Chandler and Burroughs are both guilty, and this is only a decade after The Boxer Rebellion, a war Rohmer's homeland of Britain was involved. The United States and Canada both had anti-Chinese immigration legislation at the time (Chinese Exclusion Act in the US, and Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 in Canada).

If anything, the book makes me want to see the Christopher Lee film (films?), and the parody, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu-Manchu with Peter Sellers. I plan to continue reading the book. Despite its flaws, it is smartly written and a real vocabulary expander. It is a real piece of nostalgia, and Rohmer clearly deserves his place with other pulp masters, grain of salt notwithstanding.

9 comments:

Keith said...

I've always wanted to see those Christopher Lee movies.

wiec? said...

there are five movies with Lee as Manchu i beleive. i've only seen 3 of them myself. I just saw Brides of Fu-Manchu for first time the other day hence the default pic.

if you like Hammer movies i say they're worth a look from what i've seen. never read any of the books though. they sound interesting.

Darius Whiteplume said...

@Keith - I think I'll have to start hunting Amazon for some of them.

@weic? - I am surprised there is not more buzz about there being that many movies. I imagine they are too politically incorrect these days; kind of like how you don't see "You Only Live Twice" much with Connery in his bad Asian eye makeup.

Darius Whiteplume said...

BTW: You can read Tenebrous Kate's review of "Castle of Fu Manchu" hereLooks like the Peter Sellers parody is not on DVD. Boo!

Gene Phillips said...

One thing that mitigates some of the racist content in Rohmer's FU MANCHU series is that Fu himself is very admirable: in addition to being a genius, he always keeps his word when he gives it (which is more than the Brit heroes do). You'll see an example of that word-keeping if you get to the end of INSIDIOUS, which also has a great death-trap scene.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Thanks Gene. The one I downloaded was three Fu Manchu books (I forget the other titles). I will likely finish them, if only for the nerd cred :-) Luckily the Kindle has on-the-fly dictionary lookup. Rohmer uses some pretty archaic english here and there.

Anonymous said...

The old serial "The Drums of Fu Manchu" in 15 parts,is available on DVD and is well worth seeing.
I agree that Fu Manchu is not really a typical racist character in the sense that he is invariably more intelligent than the rather cloddish British agents and very honorable. In the final books he is avidly anti-Communist and a rather decent bloke.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I ordered a Christopher Lee "Tu-Fer" with "Castles of" and I believe "Blood of" yesterday.

Perhaps, regarding the anti-Asian racism, Rohmer is instead satirizing the feelings of the day? That can be a dangerous line to walk for an author — I believe Kipling was accused of being anti-Indian, but was really satirizing the Western idea of the "white man's burden."

Gene Phillips said...

Hi Darius--

I read a bio of Rohmer years ago and it's my impression that he wasn't *subtle* enough to be a satirist. I think he was just an English guy with a passion for "the mysteries of the Orient" who managed to turn that passion into a paying job.

I ditto the Anon who recommended DRUMS OF FU MANCHU. Easily one of the best of the chapterplays.

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