"The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu" Book Review
Written by Sax Rohmer
1913, 256 pages, Fiction
Released on February 14th, 2012
Before reading The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, I had not had any experience with one of the most evil villains in pop-culture. I had not read any of the books. I had not seen any of the movies. I just knew that Fu-Manchu was a badass Asian dude with a stellar mustache and killer fingernails. After finishing the book, that impression is spot on, but now I know that Fu-Manchu is one smart fortune cookie to boot.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu mainly consists of a series of quickish adventures of Naylard Smith and his assistant Dr. Petrie (the latter of which is the narrator of the book) as they try their darndest to capture the evil Dr. Fu-Manchu before he can spread the evil Eastern Empire. Yeah, it's like that. Fu-Manchu represents the "yellow peril". That's right, aside being pretty much a Sherlock Holmes ripoff (narrating physician sidekick, genius detective, evil arch-enemy, etc), the book has action, adventure, mystery and more all under an umbrella of racism because without the threat of the evil Chinaman, there would be no story at all. But, man, it's so much fun. (Before you get all riled up, two words: Huckleberry Finn. I thought so.)
I have to admit, after I first read the The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, I was a bit underwhelmed. How is it possible that this character has maintained his notoriety for over a century? Sure, the book is enjoyable, but the concept really is a low-rent Sherlock Holmes. Plus, there is seemingly no overall story arc. Each chapter is Smith and Petrie either finding out that someone is in danger because they have crossed paths with the evil doctor, getting a call to investigate the death of someone by Fu-Manchu's hand (or one of his underlings), or they are warned by his slave girl — who is crushing on Petrie — that he's up to no good. There is virtually no ongoing investigation to track down Fu-Manchu. The two protagonists just sort of wait around until something happens. Sure Smith is a smart guy, it's obvious, but he's also kind of lazy when it comes to tracking down his arch-enemy.
However, the book has a bonus afterword where author Leslie S. Klinger explains the historical significance of Fu-Manchu, as well as delving a bit into both author Sax Rohmer and how the Chinese were thought of by both the British and the Americans at the time the books were written. It is here that Klinger mentions that The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is a collection of Rohmer's work that was originally published as serials. Now the lack of an overall arc makes sense. Once I had that piece of information, I went back and re-read a few of the cases and found them much more enjoyable.
What is most interesting about The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is how much ass the titular character kicks. The irony of it all is Rohmer is desperately trying to paint Fu-Manchu as an evil villain to show how horrible the Chinese are, but what he ends up doing is making him an anti-hero. I don't know how the doctor was looked upon at the time these stories were originally published, but I continually rooted for the guy who's so cool he had a mustache-style named after him. Not only that, the man that supposedly represents pure evil never uses a gun when he kills (or attempts to) those who threaten the East. He comes up with all of these crazy ways to murder people. Fu-Manchu is the ultimate Bond villain. Couple that with the fact that Smith and Petrie never manage to capture him for any period of time, Rohmer makes Fu-Manchu a superman. I don't know; if someone's idea of badmouthing me would be making me the smartest guy in the room and impossible to contain, I might be okay with that.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is definitely flawed. The cases are procedural, Rohmer is a poor man's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the description of the Chinese is so ridiculous it's cartoonish. But it's adventuresome and a brisk read and Dr. Fu-Manchu is the bad guy you love to love. Titan Books will be releasing the entire Fu-Manchu catalog, and this is the first in that series. Fans of pulp fiction will enjoy this, and those that have heard the name but never read the books would be well off to check this one out, too.