Emperor Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Being a huge fan of adventure and James Bond type novels, you might expect me to have read the Fu-Manchu books too, but somehow I never did. Until now – and having read this one, which happens to be the penultimate book of the series, I want to go back to the beginning and read the lot.
Sax Rohmer was the pen-name of a former civil servant from Birmingham called Arthur Henry Ward. He turned to writing in his twenties and published his first Fu-Manchu story in a magazine in 1912 becoming very popular in the 1920s & 30s. He wrote fourteen Fu-Manchu books in total, from that date until his death in 1959. Emperor Fu-Manchu is the last full novel, the final book in the series being a collection of shorter stories previously published.
Dr. Fu-Manchu is the archetype of the evil genius, and is surely the inspiration behind Dr No. Fu-Manchu is an Oriental megalomaniac scientist who uses fantastical means to achieve his ends. He was created as a response to the perceived threat to the West of Chinese domination, which as you may imagine was controversial even at the time, and by our modern standards quite politically incorrect.
As the books go on, the political stance changes, and by Emperor Fu-Manchu he shares a common enemy with West – the Communists. Of course Fu-Manchu’s way of going about ridding the world of them, with his organisation the Si-Fan, is more akin to the aims for global domination of SMERSH/SPECTRE in the Bond novels and films, than that of the Western establishments.
Of course every evil genius has to have the authorities constantly on his tail. The British spymaster in charge is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, who despite getting on in age in the later books, appears to have lost none of his faculties and be as sprightly as ever he was. Nayland-Smith is clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes, and has his own version of Watson in the early novels. In this late novel, as it starts he is instructing an American agent born in Hong Kong named Tony McKay that he will work with about his role in the mission. McKay, who can pass for Chinese is to penetrate the ‘second Bamboo Curtain’ to confirm that ‘The Master’ deep in the province of Szechuan is Dr Fu-Manchu.
“There’s some number one top secret being hidden in Szechuan. Miltary Intelligence thinks it’s a Soviet project. I believe it’s a Fu-Manchu project. He may be playing the Soviets at their own game. Dr. Fu-Manchu has no more use for Communism than I have for Asiatic flu. But so far all attempts to solve the puzzle have come apart. Local agents are only of limited use, but you may find them helpful and they’ll be looking out for you. You’ll have the sign and countersigns. Dine with me tonight and I’ll give you a thorough briefing.” (p12)
No sooner does McKay infiltrate his way towards the Russian ‘leprosy centre’ posing as a fisherman looking for his missing fiancée, than he ends up in a Chinese cell. While nearby, the new governor of the province is meeting his old friend, ‘The Master’…
The man seated there wore a loose yellow robe. His elbows rested on the desk, and his fingers – long, yellow fingers – were pressed together; he might have reminded an observer of a praying mantis. He had the high brow of a philosopher and features suggesting great intellectual power. This aura of mental force seemed to be projected by his eyes, which were of a singular green color. As he stared before him as if at some distant vision, from time to time his eyes filmed over in an extraordinary manner.
The room, in which there lingered a faint, sickly smell of opium, was completely silent. (p18)
I’m not going to expound on the plot much further, suffice to say that Nayland-Smith’s local agents free McKay who escapes to a nearby moored sampan only to discover a girl on board, also hiding. At first he’s not sure he can trust Yueh Hua – but of course he falls for her. There’s lots of back and forth between various safe houses of friends of Nayland-Smith, who pops up all over the place, as they try to find out more about the army of ‘Cold Men’ that Fu-Manchu has working for him as his private army. Essentially frozen zombies, this introduces the mad scientist with a fantastical process to reanimate corpses element to the story. There is spying, fighting, capture, escape, romance and more as Nayland-Smith and colleagues try destroy the top secret Soviet centre before Fu-Manchu can get his hands on it.
Fu-Manchu and Nayland-Smith made fascinating adversaries – and the strangest thing was that both were men of their word, neither will lie to each other. This means that some things cannot be said and McKay has to keep Nayland-Smith in the dark on one matter, because McKay knows that Nayland-Smith would feel compelled to tell Fu-Manchu if he knew. Honour amongst thieves and spies eh!
These books were written in English by an Englishman. The new editions are global but made in America, and some Americanisms have crept in to spellings, e.g. color, etc. While this is annoying, you don’t really notice it once hooked by the plot. It is great to have the full set nearly back in print (one more to come), and I enjoyed the fun cheesiness of this adventure a lot. (8.5/10)
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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
Sax Rohmer, Emperor Fu-Manchu (1959). Titan books paperback, 2015, 240 pages.