Just so we’re clear, these books aren’t part of the current fad of reviving classic characters and giving them new adventures. There’s plenty of those about, breathing fresh life in to legends such as Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. But, no, Titan have acquired the original Fu Manchu adventures written by Sax Rohmer through the 1920s and 30s and are reissuing them in shiny new editions with gorgeous new artwork and nice added extras. The first two, ‘The Mystery of Fu Manchu’ and ‘The Return of Fu Manchu’ have just been released with the rest to follow soon. There are fourteen in all so if you get into them you’re going to need to clear a bit of room on your bookshelf.
Fu Manchu is a villain from a time when the greatest threat to the western world came from the Far East and there was considerable paranoia about the inscrutable Chinese sabotaging the decent folk of Europe. Later generations had the Nazis or the Communists to boo and hiss as their ready-made villains but at the beginning of the twentieth century it was the threat of the Yellow Peril that stopped people sleeping at night.
Dr Fu Manchu is the greatest agent of the Chinese government, sent to London to interfere with international politics, spy, sabotage and generally cause chaos to weaken the British establishment. He is rarely seen but his fingers are in every evil scheme, essentially an oriental Professor Moriarty, he is a genius and expert in just about every art and science under the sun. It’s worth sharing Sax Rohmer’s description of him because it’s absolutely brilliant:
‘Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan…’
Genius. What’s not to love about a description like that?
I described him as like Moriarty deliberately because Sax Rohmer’s early stories are clearly heavily influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You can’t have a super-villain without some indomitable good guys to hunt him down, so Rohmer gives us his very own version of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Our detective here is Nayland Smith and his faithful sidekick is Doctor Petrie who, obviously, writes all the adventures down for posterity. Within a few pages our brave lads are hot on the heels of the nefarious Fu Manchu, doggedly pursuing the foul deeds of the evil yellow mastermind all over England. Like Sherlock Holmes it’s all very episodic because the adventures were serialised in journals before being collected together and published as novels. This means that most of the chapters are only about ten pages long and each one is a complete mini adventure in itself which is perfect if, like me, you like to read for a few minutes before you put the light out each night, because you can quickly get your Fu Manchu fix and then go to sleep with a big stupid grin on your face.
That’s where the similarity to Sherlock Holmes ends though. Nayland Smith and Petrie are no Holmes and Watson and Sax Rohmer has none of the complexity and subtlety of Conan Doyle. The mysteries are childishly simple and transparent and you’re pretty likely to be shouting the solution at the book while Smith and Petrie stumble around frowning at a ‘puzzle’ that makes the Sun crossword look challenging. There are brilliant adventures – poisoned victims, invisible burglars, bodies in the Thames and even secret chambers full of deadly poisonous mushrooms (really!) – but, while they are certainly enormous fun, they aren’t going to push any budding amateur detectives very hard.
Conan Doyle had his shortcomings as a writer but he at least earned his right to be thought of as ‘literary’. Not so Sax Rohmer. He was pulp through and through and proud of it. His style is permanently on the edge of hysteria and exclamation marks abound. ‘It’s Fu Manchu!’ Of course it is. He builds up to peaks of excitement that are frequently so over the top they make you laugh out loud.
And while I’m on the subject, the first book must deserve some sort of award for being so completely inappropriately titled. There actually is no mystery at all. Dead body in the Thames? Oh, my God, who could have done it? Oh, hold on, it was Fu Manchu. Secret documents stolen from a diplomat’s impregnable mansion? But who? Hmm. Fu Manchu. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that no matter what happens, guess what? Yep. It was Fu Manchu. There’s another thirteen books of this to come and no matter what ever happens it is, and always will be, Fu Manchu behind it.
All of which will probably make you think that this is a negative review but it really isn’t. ‘The Mystery of Fu Manchu’ and its sequel are enormous fun from start to finish. They are barking mad and frequently unintentionally hilarious, but if anything that’s the reason to pick them up and give them a go. You’ll know whether they’re for you within the first twenty pages, but if you do start getting into the clueless bumblings of Nayland Smith and Petrie and the ever-more-deranged evil schemes of Fu Manchu it won’t be long before you’re more properly addicted than his army of opium goons.
One serious question that probably needs to be addressed is; isn’t it a bit racist? To be honest, the simple answer is; well, yes, it is. The Chinese are yellow, evil and want to destroy everything we stand for. However, in a more realistic assessment it isn’t really racist at all. The Chinese here fulfil the same universal villain role as the Nazis in Indiana Jones or the Russians in James Bond. They’re just the bad guys. Even more telling is the fact that Fu Manchu and his cronies outwit our hapless heroes at every turn. Fu Manchu is more cunning, more clever, more knowledgeable and just plain better at everything than the British characters are ever going to be.
In short, these books are great, barking mad, mental fun. If you like them there’s loads more on the way. They are beautifully presented with gorgeous artwork, a biographical essay about Sax Rohmer (who was clearly just as mad as his inventions) and some fascinating critical evaluations of the impact of Fu Manchu on popular culture over the years. Give them a go – go on, pitch your wits against the Yellow Peril. They’ve got to be worth a few quid of anyone’s money.