A Very Good Job for a Swede

E.S. Turner

  • The Fu Manchu Omnibus: Vol. II by Sax Rohmer
    Allison and Busby, 630 pp, £9.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 7490 0222 0

In his first Father Brown story, ‘The Blue Cross’, published in 1910, G.K. Chesterton introduced a ‘colossus of crime’ who seemed to have strayed in from Comic Cuts: a giant Gascon called Flambeau who planted dummy pillar boxes in quiet suburbs in the hope of catching the odd postal order, and who ran a fraudulent dairy company without benefit of cows, his agents merely moving the milk containers outside other people’s doors to the doors of his own customers. Was Chesterton, perhaps, making mock of Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of crime’ whose empire was not without its Comic Cuts aspects? Neither Flambeau nor Moriarty had anything like the reach or the ambition, of Dr Fu Manchu, the ‘archangel of evil’ who controlled the underworlds and fanatical sects of four continents and was out for world domination. The filmy-eyed mandarin, who surfaced on the bookstalls in 1913, was described by his creator, Sax Rohmer, as ‘the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’.

The notion of a Yellow Peril (currently the ‘China threat’ or the ‘Asian tiger menace’) first emerged in the 1890s in Germany. By then, of course, there was already a German Peril, as even the British Foreign Office was beginning to admit, having so long kept guard against a French Peril. Other perils abounded. There were intoxicated prophets of Islam, on the Mahdi model, who bore watching. Russia was the source of bomb-carrying nihilists ready to sacrifice all to create a new world; and in that country the secret police were very much alive to the Jewish Peril, conducting pogroms to frustrate the malign plot of world conquest drawn up in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague by the leaders of Israel’s Twelve Tribes, with the Devil in attendance, as disclosed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

With all these perils, real or imaginary, and with H.G. Wells raising the spectre of Martians invading England in The War of Worlds, who needed a Yellow Peril? In the vulgar view China was a degenerate nation which exported laundrymen to do the world’s dirty washing. If it posed any real threat it was as a source of cheap labour. In the late 19th century, America, not relishing the zeal with which the Chinese had joined in its gold rushes, passed a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts and there were yellow v. white riots in San Francisco. The ‘White Australia’ policy was inspired by Chinese incursions into Australian goldfields. In South Africa, after the Boer War, Lord Milner imported fifty thousand indentured Chinese to work the Rand gold mines; the subsequent row over their mistreatment (and misbehaviour) convulsed British Liberals and gave Winston Churchill the opportunity to protest that ‘slavery’ was a ‘terminological inexactitude’. In Britain such Chinese as were not in the laundry business huddled in places like Limehouse, where they admitted society riff-raff to their opium dens and, according to a social investigator, practised ‘nameless vices which we never mention, but which are not so unfamiliar to our private understandings’.

For writers of popular fiction it was a puzzle to know which peril to invoke, which would pay off best. In 1893 the prolific literary adventurer, William le Queux (sometime Honorary Consul for San Marino), published The Great War England in 1897, in which a Franco-Russian army invaded Britain, and followed it in 1905 with The Invasion of 1910, this time with jack-booted Prussians as the aggressors. This was serialised in the Daily Mail by Lord Northcliffe, who was much exercised by the German Peril. Even the Northcliffe boys’ papers ran a series of ‘Britain Invaded’ stories; the doomed youth of Britain were reared on pictures of a shell-torn West-minster Clock Tower and a St Paul’s dome dented like a breakfast egg. In this anti-German frenzy, on the eve of the Great War, the emergence of Dr Fu Manchu as a hate figure to rival the spike-helmeted Kaiser must have seemed presumptuous. When hostilities began Chinese labour battalions were recruited for the meaner tasks on the Western Front; 543 of these ‘coolies’ were drowned in the Mediterranean in the torpedoed liner Athos. Sax Rohmer’s tales of Dr Fu Manchu continued to come out all through the war, though they were rather eclipsed in 1916 by John Buchan’s Greenmantle, in which Richard Hannay bluffed his way to Constantinople to prevent a wild Islamic prophet, backed by Germany, from setting the East in flames. In the real world the Germans were backing a more potent troublemaker by smuggling Lenin to St Petersburg, thus establishing Russia as an inexhaustible source of fictional villains for the next two generations.

Julian Symons in Bloody Murder dismissed the Fu Manchu tales as ‘absolute rubbish, penny dreadfuls in hard covers’, but John Mortimer was happy to include the fiend with ‘a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan’ in his Oxford Book of Villains. On the cover of Volume Two of this Omnibus a voice from Time Out exclaims: ‘These long-awaited reprints make my heart sing.’ So who was the man who created this vivifying villain, capable of entrancing sophisticates yet unborn? Sax Rohmer was the pen-name (and an excellent one) of Arthur Selsdon Ward, born in Birmingham of Irish parents in, perhaps, 1883. Like his fecund contemporary in the field of thrillers, Edgar Wallace, he began his career as a newspaperman. He served a stint on that saucy Edwardian sheet the Pink’Un (aka the Sporting Times). ‘As a journalist I was not an outstanding success,’ he is reported as having said. ‘I “bucked up” interviews with dull people to a point where the victims jibbed.’ It is possible that, like innumerable writers of popular fiction, he was employed in wartime Intelligence, but it was left to William le Queux to boast of such activities in Who’s Who: ‘has intimate knowledge of the secret services of the Continent; consulted by the Government on such matters’. Both le Queux and Rohmer were fascinated by Egyptiana at a time when desecrating the Luxor tombs was all the rage. Rohmer was convinced he had spent at least one incarnation beside the Nile, and he did not hesitate to mingle Egyptian myths with those of the Celestial Empire. In The Mask of Fu Manchu the Doctor (‘I hold the Plagues of Egypt in my hands’) makes a personal appearance in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid, chosen for the launch of another of those fanatical Islamic prophets.

Dr Fu Manchu, tall, cadaverous and skullcapped, is ‘evil immutable, apparently eternal’, able to assemble the powers of hell in an Egyptian oasis or on a private Riviera rock. He exudes wickedness as other men exude body odour and the toughest adversaries are ‘sucked empty’ by his green gaze. Multilingual, he is the product of a famous university; and one may be sure that, unlike Professor Moriarty, he did not fritter away his 21st year writing a ‘Treatise on the Binomial Theorem’. His aim is not just to redress the long-standing wrongs of China; as an agent of that ancient and secret society, the Si Fan, he means to subjugate the decadent West. Somewhere he has picked up a knowledge of poisons far exceeding that of the Borgias: he can confer a state of artificial catalepsy on his victims; he can spread ‘impalpable abominations’ capable of drenching the Mediterranean littoral in sleeping sickness. His personal aides, whether dacoit stranglers or thugs from the Slave Coast, seem never to be without a set of sinister gongs. So far so good. One is ready to believe even that the Doctor has a submarine yard on the Irrawaddy, but credibility is threatened when it emerges that he has an Englishman’s sense of honour and always keeps his word. But every villain has his unaccountable flaw. Dr Fu Manchu also suffers from that ‘fatal excess of ingenuity’ discerned by P.G. Wodehouse in all his kind: as, for example, a tendency to employ a poisonous monster centipede on a long leash when a quick bullet would have done the job.

In addition the Doctor has woman trouble, in the shape of a she-devil daughter, Fah Lo Suee, who seeks to advance her father’s plans beyond the point at which even he hesitates. ‘I share the sorrow of King Lear,’ he laments. She is impossibly voluptuous and, with the pick of mankind at her disposal, conceives a sudden ‘characteristically Oriental infatuation’ for one of the white men on her trail. In a panic he sees himself transported to an infamous role – ‘I should awake somewhere in China, as a male concubine to this Eastern Circe.’ That is the sort of career break the Flashman of George MacDonald Fraser could have taken in his stride, but Rohmer’s males have ‘a marked streak of puritanism’ in them, saying things like ‘I had never been a woman’s man’ or ‘I was never a squire of dames.’ Their ability to keep their minds on the task in hand – the saving of Western civilisation – is such that they are proof against any ‘sudden lawless desire’. Another female in the Fu Manchu camp (unlike the Chinese of Limehouse, the Doctor appears to be heterosexual) has studied ‘the icy peaks of sexless philosophy in a Buddhist monastery’, followed by ‘the material feminism of a famous British school’ (Cheltenham Ladies’?). It is no wonder that she and her hypnotised Englishman never get much beyond what used to be called spooning.

Dr Fu Manchu’s perennial adversary is the pipe-puffing Sir Denis Nayland Smith, an assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard who has served in Burma; a man who spends too much time tugging perplexedly at the lobe of his left ear. However, he is a handy fellow with that old-fashioned weapon, a sandbag. Apologising for a discourtesy, he says: ‘Forgive me – the fate of millions was at stake.’ This rather under-characterised figure is able to give orders to other nations’ police forces, to instruct the French how to deploy their destroyers and to impose a secrecy blanket on the British press. Faced unexpectedly with the sight of the Doctor asleep in an opium trance, Nayland Smith shrinks from the opportunity to rid the world of evil immutable, moved perhaps by the same qualms which made the British soldier hesitate to shoot a sleeping Japanese before waking him. But he and his helpers are ready to give short shrift to the Doctor’s murderous dacoits and eye-gouging Tibetan monks. These expendable ruffians tend to be deep black or dark brown and misshapen with it. If an epicene hunchbacked dwarf with a giant head topped by a tarbush seems a touch outré, what about Ian Fleming’s Oddjob in Goldfinger – a cat-eating Korean with a cleft palate and a knife-edged bowler hat, us adept at karate as at painting girls gold all over?

In the early stories Nayland Smith and his allies ‘ejaculate’ things like ‘Merciful Heavens’ and ‘Jumping Jupiter!’ and are quick to recognise the workings of Providence. They embody all the manly decencies to be found in the Buchan novels. These are not sex-and-violence tales, but exercises in suspense, surprise and terror, ideal for anyone who wants to know what it is like to be trapped in a blacked-out room with a black strangler in a black loin-cloth, or to confront in a corridor a botched homunculus – a Thing! – which has blundered out of its incubator. Rohmer did not go in for psychological insights or feats of detection like Holmes’s ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ Craft and sleight keep absurdity at bay and there are enough references to Circe, Kali, Paracelsus and the Philosopher’s Stone for the reader to feel he is being educated. For anyone who wants descriptions of landscape and weather there is always Buchun.

The maturing events of half a century forced Dr Fu Manchu to change his priorities. In Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931) the mandarin’s daughter is all for intervention in Russia, ‘that great land stolen by fools’, but her father hangs back. In Fu Manchu’s Bride (1933), however, the Doctor is working on plans to flood Russia with plague-carrying flies, which disappointingly perish in the cold of the steppes. So ends Volume Two. Thereafter Fu Manchu was transformed by his creator from an entirely self-serving villain to a dedicated anti-Communist. The idea of ‘the greatest menace to the West since Attila the Hun’ fighting flat out for democracy is almost too painful to contemplate, but the old China the Doctor was hoping to revive had itself been overrun by Communists.

By the time Dr Fu Manchu was forced to betray his ideals his creator was a septuagenarian living in White Plains, New York, and was described as ‘small, grey, nervous, affable’. He had spent two fortunes and sold his film and television rights for four million dollars. (Warner Oland, who played the Yellow Peril incarnate in silent films, did a very good job for a Swede.) Rohmer had a jealous wife, Elizabeth, who threw a great deal of crockery at him, as she proudly revealed in a curious biography written by herself and Coy Van Ash, Master of Villainy (1973). Van Ash repaired the damage by saying that Rohmer’s house in White Plains was ‘the last stronghold of imaginative culture in a society which had thrown all culture aside’.

Rohmer died in 1959. At least he could boast that the tales of Fu Manchu, whom he unsuccessfully killed off twice, were all his own work, whereas it had taken a hundred journeymen of literature to keep the Sexton Blake saga afloat. If in late years he was a shade nervous, this was surely caused by domestic tensions rather than by worry at any damage his Chinese villain had caused to East-West relations. The fiction writer who wrought most harm in living memory was probably ‘Sir John Retcliff’, the pen-name of a disgraced German postal official, Hermann Goedsche, to whom we owe the revival of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.