Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I Read Books: The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu

I've been reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also published as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and I've written up each chapter as I came to it. Now though it's time for considering the novel as a whole.

With over 100 years of covers I was able to get a different image for each chapter
What Can Be Done With Fu-Manchu?

A chapter-by-chapter daily reading is, as it turns out, a bad way to read the novel. Published in sections originally, although they build on each other to add up to something more, you can and should read each individual section which detail one of (mostly) Petrie and Smith's attempts to stop Fu-Manchu from killing someone, or (towards the end) a raid on one of his bases and the fallout. The chapter end cliffhangers draw you in, maintaining the pace and disguising the fact that they don't actually get much done.

The style is almost always overwrought by modern standards. Every appearance or event caused by Dr Fu-Manchu is THE MOST TERRIFYING AND OVERWHELMING EVER, which makes it feel as though Petrie is a teen girl writing a diary in a poor quality horror movie. In fact I like that so much I'm keeping that idea.

Fu-Manchu's technology is mostly biological, and two of his plots revolve around stealing plans for an "aero-torpedo*" and faking the death and kidnapping an engineer. This is of course one of the oppositions the novel sets forth; mechanical vs medical, forthright vs cunning, honourable vs cruel, western vs oriental. As might be expected, the methods Rohmer explains are slightly implausible, although perhaps not totally out of the question, given the state of knowledge at the time it was written. Era-appropriate advanced technology.

Which leads me to anachronistically place it in a genre that it exemplifies; an obsession with accurate locations, technologies, and techniques at the expense of character; a gloss of political and international realities with good terminologies but fanciful detail; a somewhat jingoistic view of country vs country, so that Fu-Manchu operating in England is horrific, but Smith acting as commissioner in Burma is just, you know, the British Empire** doing it's business. Transplant it into the Cold War, replacing the Evil Empire with the Yellow Peril, and it would be immediately obvious that the book is a techno-thriller

Things That Haven't Aged Well

Is it racist? Yes, yes it is. Fu-Manchu is cruel because he is a member of a cruel race and he is the cruelest of them and his cruelty proves how cruel the Chinese are. I'm not going to go too much into this as you know, 1912, people got judged on their nationality and ancestry all the time. You're part of you race/nation/gender/class first and any individual details come in later. There's little characterisation of either the policemen led by Smith or the dacoits who serve Fu-Manchu. The majority of Fu-Manchu's victims are mature men, often single, slightly eccentric and mostly of interest for either travelling to Asia or inventing something. Prominent professionals and upper-class men, the backbone of the Empire. Of course Fu-Manchu might have been murdering lower class enemies - sailors, clerks, soldiers who had served in China - by the boat load and Smith would never know because they never came to his attention or were recorded in the papers.

What is interesting is how complex Fu-Manchu becomes by the end. He doesn't regret the crimes he committed out of "conviction" but he does those of "necessity", self-defence etc. He respects Smith and Petrie and undoes one of his cruelest injuries. At the same time he uses the of curing Weymouth to cover his escape. He's cunning like that, like all Chinese, and he's the most cunning etc.

Talking of complex there's Karamaneh, the only female character who really does anything. She is a slave who rebels against Fu-Manchu - but only to look for a new master in Petrie. This, according to Smith is the way of women in the Orient, who desire to be controlled. Yet by the end she walks away from both Fu-Manchu and Petrie*** with her brother.

Perhaps notably Petrie and Smith would have not only got nowhere without the aid of Karamaneh, they would almost certainly have been killed by Fu-Manchu before they became interesting enough for him to decide to capture them. Yes, I'm calling it here. Dr Fu-Manchu's greatest enemy is not Nayland Smith as most people believe; it is Karamaneh, his own slave girl. As such we might rightly say that he has sown the seeds of his own destruction.

To Sum Up

We can read this as a Technothriller-Invasion-Spy novel straightforwardly, accepting the frame that Fu-Manchu has reached out halfway around the world as the fore-funner of the Yellow Peril**** to assault the innocent people of England. Yet one does not have to be very revisionary to note that many of Dr Fu-Manchu's targets are Europeans deeply embedded in Asian countries. Smith was part of the colonial government in Burma; how shocking that China might have ambitions in that part of the world while Britain's rule is obviously the natural order of things. Both Smith and Fu-Manchu use deception and disguise, both use violence in pursuit of their (national) goals. If we see Nayland Smith and Dr Fu-Manchu as dark mirrors of each other then it becomes clear why Smith does not think Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac. And also why, despite his ruthlessness, he has scruples and tries to put right a wrong or two he has done along the way. Both agents of globe-spanning Imperial powers.

Now that's an interesting concept for a series.

Read This: For a fast paced and entertaining hundred year old thriller with one of the all time great villains.
Don't Read This: If hundred year old over wrought prose aggravates you, or you aren't interested in people falling into death traps. Also if you aren't on board for racism, sexism, classism, and possibly some other bigotry of sorts.
Will The World hear From You Again?: Dr Fu-Manchu returns in, um, The Return of Dr Fu-Manchu. Which I will read eventually.

* This may in fact have been an aeroplane.

** Fu-Manchu comes to Europe and is a SPY and a TERRORIST. Smith goes to Asia and is an agent of His Majesties Government.

*** Who promptly stalks her. Reading romantic cues across cultural boundaries is difficult, and the method used in (fictional) early 20th Century England is to stoically say nothing for several chapters then express you feelings in flowery prose for about a page and a half, so maybe Petrie needs to be a bit more straightforward. Anyway, enough of this; let's just say that Rohmer seems determined to keep the romantic tension taut.

**** "People of Europe, Guard Your Most Sacred Possessions," a somewhat mixed allegorical lithograph used by Kaiser Wilhelm II to promote his colonial response to what he called the Yellow Peril.
From the left we have (possibly) Athena for Greece but it's not clear; Britannia, Italia, Mother Russia, Germania who has her arm around Austria, Marianne representing France, St Michael with a flaming sword and in the distance the threatening figure of the Buddha.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Thirty

(I have been reading the book published in the US as The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and in the UK and Commonwealth as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu and have come to the final chapter. If you are one of the approximately two people who have followed the entire series, or even if you aren't, and have a suggestion for anything else I should read etc. let me know. There will be another entry tomorrow in which I sum up.)

Petrie jumps ahead and tells us what we already guessed and didn't really need to know; Inspector Weymouth, turned mad by Dr Fu-Manchu, has been living rough near his old house.  "Literally, he had returned to primitive savagery and some of his food had been that of the lower animals, though he had not scrupled to steal, as we learned when his lair was discovered."*

We return to the night they captured him and travel by car to New Court Inn where Professor Monde has been arrested in his rooms filled with Asian knick-knacks. Smith approaches him. "Almost savagely, he tore away the beard, tore off the snowy wig dashed the smoked glasses upon the floor. A great, high brow was revealed, and green, malignant eyes, which fixed themselves upon him with an expression I never can forget. IT WAS DR. FU-MANCHU!"

Fu-Manchu reveals that the real Professor Monde has been detained in China**. Smith and Petrie interrogate him alone.

Smith asks if he can restore Inspector Weymouth's sanity, admitting that he has nothing to offer***. Fu-Manchu agrees; he injected him from necessity and regrets it.**** He says he will not reveal the antidote, but put him and Weymouth together, alone, and he will cure him. Smith suspects a trick but Fu-Manchu swears not to "The God of Cathay."

"The most awful visitor who ever threatened the peace of England, the end of the visit of Fu-Manchu was characteristic—terrible—inexplicable." Great Petrie, now we know what you think of it. Weymouth emerges from a cottage the police have surrounded, sane, then it explodes in flame. "From the heat of the holocaust a voice proclaimed itself—a voice raised, not in anguish but in TRIUMPH!"*****

Petrie admits that the ending he's writing is bad. Don't be so hard on yourself old man! So after the fire in the cottage dies down there is no sign of any human bones. In Weymouth's pocket is this note:

 "To Mr. Commissioner NAYLAND SMITH and Dr. PETRIE—

"Greeting! I am recalled home by One who may not be denied. In much that I came to do I have failed. Much that I have done I would undo; some little I have undone. Out of fire I came—the smoldering fire of a thing one day to be a consuming flame; in fire I go. Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires! Farewell.


How, then," says Petrie, "shall I conclude this very unsatisfactory account? Shall I tell you, finally, of my parting with lovely, dark-eyed Karamaneh, on board the liner which was to bear her to Egypt?"

Apparently not as he actually finishes with this call to adventure from Nayland Smith:

"I sail for Burma in a fortnight, Petrie. I have leave to break my journey at the Ditch******. How would a run up the Nile fit your programme? Bit early for the season, but you might find something to amuse you!"

Roll credits.

* Also "his trick of knocking upon his own door at half-past two each morning (a sort of dawning of sanity mysteriously linked with old custom) will be a familiar class of symptom to all students of alienation." Alienation was the discipline that includes what we would term psychology and psychiatry.

** "In truth and in justice I am compelled to say that Fu-Manchu was absolutely fearless." Fu-Manchu is as self possessed when captured as when he is in control.

*** "I cannot save you from the hangman, nor"—his fists clenched convulsively—"would I if I could; but—"

**** He could be lying but this, Fu-Manchu as ruthless yet with scruples, knocks a hole in the "incredible cruelty" part of his character.

***** I assume he's telling them that the world will hear from him again.

****** The Suez Canal

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Nine

(I have reached the penultimate chapter of The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and our heroes are returning to the home of the missing-presumed-dead Inspector Weymouth where strange things have been going on.)

They return to Maple Cottage at dusk and Nayland Smith is interested in "an extensive estate... not yet cut up by the builder". Sub-urbanisation is coming guys. He talks to the local bobby*, who admits that tramps living there stealing loaves and milk is a problem - for the man who relieves him in the morning.

They arrive at the cottage which is under surveillance by plain clothes detectives, and Petrie makes sure they've drugged Mrs Weymouth so she won't wake. Smith smokes his pipe and we learn he's bad at it**. Petrie uses the time to write up some notes on Fu-Manchu, and comes up with this sentence : "Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green: invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect…"***

An owl hoots three times, which means something to Smith and then it's two thirty in the morning and they hear the bells of St Paul's, apparently, and there's a knocking on the door. Smith opens it. "It was a wild, unkempt figure, with straggling beard, hideously staring eyes." They begin to laugh. Sounds like me coming home after... oh never mind.

James Weymouth recognises him as his brother John, the Inspector Weymouth who vanished in the Thames fighting Fu-Manchu while the latter was holding a needle that turns people mad. I think we're all pretty clear on what's happened. They grab him, all five of them, and Petrie injects him with something that Smith asked him to bring (presumably a sedative; I don't think they have a cure for Fu-Manchu's serum). Weymouth is subdued.

Smith then questions the Scotland Yard messenger and discovers that "He" is arrested at his chambers. Petrie/Rohmer are a little coy about it here but it's Professor Monde, because there's no one else left in the story to arrest. Smith says "Come, then. Our night's labors are not nearly complete." No, because the final chapter awaits.

* I initially mispelt this as "booby" and very nearly left it in but eventually changed it. Keep it subtle guys. Fu-Manchu wouldn't make jokes about knockers and/or sea-birds.

** "At intervals of some five to ten minutes, his blackened briar (which I never knew him to clean or scrape) would go out. I think Smith used more matches than any other smoker I have ever met, and he invariably carried three boxes in various pockets of his garments."

*** From this it seems he's writing up Chapter Two (or possibly Chapter Eight which paraphrases this sentence). Better hurry up Petrie; there's only this chapter and the next to finish the first draft! He goes on to note that this was "the night upon which I had learned of the existence of the wonderful and evil being born of that secret quickening which stirred in the womb of the yellow races." I, um, don't quite know what to make of that.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Eight

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and these are my notes on chapter twenty eight; as there are thirty chapters in the book we are towards the end of the story, which is more of a series of related stories rather than a single integrated novel anyway)

"OF all that we had hoped for in our pursuit of Fu-Manchu how little had we accomplished," begins Petrie before listing their failures. Interestingly he notes as a success that Nayland Smith managed to keep everything out of the press*.

Petrie also talks about Karamaneh. "Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror." He quite likes her, although being foreign and oriental he doesn't understand her. So, at her request, they book passage for her and her brother to Egypt, their native land, to leave in three days.

They take a break and go and see some water colours in Bond Street when Aziz "feels" the presence of Fu-Manchu. They look but can't see him.  "Who could mistake that long, gaunt shape, with the high, mummy-like shoulders, and the indescribable gait, which I can only liken to that of an awkward cat?" Despite last being seen falling in the Thames none of them believe that "the lord of strange deaths... was no more."

Smith investigates "a tall, old man, wearing a black Inverness coat and a rather shabby silk hat. He had long white hair and a patriarchal beard, wore smoked glasses and walked slowly, leaning upon a stick."

The commissionaire recognises the man as Professor Jenner Monde, who he knew when he was a sergeant out in China, so obviously he's not Fu-Manchu. Smith ponders for a moment if a man who has spent so much time out in China might be an ally of the doctor, but Petrie points out that the unnatural feeling of disquiet would only be caused by Fu-Manchu himself, and he isn't Fu-Manchu as they now know.

They investigate; the professor has been in London for a week, and he is well known at the British Museum; for the greater part of the year he goes abroad**.

They are interrupted by James Weymouth who is shaken by "something uncanny going on at Maple Cottage.***" There was more knocking in the middle of the night. When he looked Mr Weymouth saw nothing but he did hear "SOMEONE LAUGHING!"

Smith and Petrie decide to go; they are not sure if it would be safe to remove Mrs Weymouth (the widow), but Petrie reckons he can administer "an opiate" to keep her out of the way while they investigate. They all want to know what Smith thinks they will find. "I dare not tell you what I hope, Petrie, nor what I fear."

* "In the absence of such a veto a veritable panic must have seized upon the entire country; for a monster—a thing more than humanly evil—existed in our midst." I mean, true, what good would it do to publicise Fu-Manchu's activities, other than for every natural death to be laid at his door, and uninvolved foreigners to be persecuted (Fu-Manchu and his associates being masters of disguise would probably escape notice)? Yet by putting it out there, it would at the very least aggravate him, a man who wishes his moves to be secret, and perhaps push him into making a mistake. And maybe the great British public would demand something be done and they could invade China or similar.

** Where exactly is he a professor of? They should question that institution. Or is it an honourary title? Perhaps Fu-Manchu has a side business in selling false degrees and honours.

*** Not so shaken as to fail to take advantage of their hospitality. "Weymouth took a cigarette from the box which I proffered and poured out a peg of whisky. His hand was not quite steady."

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Watch TV: Colonel March of Scotland Yard

Boris Karloff wears an eyepatch

He solves impossible crimes

It was based on a book called The Department of Queer Complaints

Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1956)

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Seven

(I'm reading The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu or actually the American edition which was published under the title The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu. Later in the series Fu-Manchu loses the hyphen and becomes Fu Manchu, in line with twentieth century romanisation of Chinese words and names. This hasn't happened yet; as Chapter Twenty Seven opens our heroes have just managed to escape Fu-Manchu and are stranded on the bank of the Thames, or conceivably a tributary but probably not.)

After hanging about for a while a police boat picks them up (and reveals they are on the mud-flats below Greenwich). They are brought up to date; eight men died in Fu-Manchu's fungus-poisoned cellar and "an uncanny howling, and peals of laughter that I'm going to dream about for weeks..." suggest Inspector Weymouth was injected with the stuff that turns you mad.

Smith is unhappy. "Pray God the river has that yellow Satan. I would sacrifice a year of my life to see his rat's body on the end of a grappling-iron!" He doesn't like Fu-Manchu.

They talk to Karamaneh who reveals that Fu-Manchu brought seven dacoits to England with him. Only one (probably) was still unaccounted for. As previously suspected he used the Thames as a highway, having several boats including at least one sea-going vessel, which she is unable to describe but believes has already left for China.

They meet with James Weymouth, the brother of Inspector Weymouth "four and a half miles S.S.E. of St. Paul's" in a "quaint little cottage, with its rustic garden, shadowed by the tall trees which had so lined the village street before motor 'buses were... a spot as peaceful and secluded as any in broad England."* They tell him all they can and Smith expands on his ignorance**.

Then Mr Weymouth tells them a story; Inspector Weymouth's wife, Mary had been thought to be having delusions; "for the last three nights poor John's*** widow has cried out at the same time—half-past two—that someone was knocking on the door." He was often late back from the yard before his disappearance. But then last night Weymouth's wife also heard it.

Petrie has other things on his mind. "Karamaneh laid her hand upon mine, in a quaint, childish fashion peculiarly her own. Her hand was cold, but its touch thrilled me. For Karamaneh was not a child, but a rarely beautiful girl—a pearl of the East such as many a monarch has fought for." Yes yes. If you like her so much why don't you marry her?

* Contrasting this idea of peaceful rural England with the horrors brought out of China by Fu-Manchu of course. Four and a half miles SSE of St Paul's is Forest Hill or Lewisham maybe.

** "Dr. Fu-Manchu was the ultimate expression of Chinese cunning; a phenomenon such as occurs but once in many generations. He was a superman of incredible genius, who, had he willed, could have revolutionized science. There is a superstition in some parts of China according to which, under certain peculiar conditions (one of which is proximity to a deserted burial-ground) an evil spirit of incredible age may enter unto the body of a new-born infant. All my efforts thus far have not availed me to trace the genealogy of the man called Dr. Fu-Manchu. Even Karamaneh cannot help me in this. But I have sometimes thought that he was a member of a certain very old Kiangsu family—and that the peculiar conditions I have mentioned prevailed at his birth!" So he's literally possessed by a demon? Interesting theory Smith.

*** John's brother is named James? Siblings with the same initial? What, is this the 1500s when they only had ten names?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Six

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu and at the start of chapter twenty six our heroes have been captured by Fu-Manchu. Again.)

Petrie wakes up bound, gagged, secured to an iron ring and aboard "an electric launch". Unfortunately this is not the result of a stag night gone wrong, and he, Nayland Smith, and Inspector Weymouth are all prisoners of Fu-Manchu. It's very foggy.

The boat is hailed by a familiar voice, Inspector Ryland of the river police and his boat is "within biscuit-throw* of that upon which we lay!" Fu-Manchu races away and Ryland's launch is in pursuit.

Weymouth gets his hands free but before he can do more has to pretend to be tied again as Fu-Manchu explains why he hasn't killed them (yet). "Dr. Petrie you shall be my honored guest at my home in China. You shall assist me to revolutionize chemistry. Mr. Smith, I fear you know more of my plans than I had deemed it possible for you to have learned, and I am anxious to know if you have a confidant. Where your memory fails you, and my files and wire jackets** prove ineffectual, Inspector Weymouth's recollections may prove more accurate."

Fu Manchu has also finally noticed that Petrie has a crush. "You have seemed to display an undue interest in the peach and pearl*** which render my Karamaneh so delightful, In the supple grace of her movements and the sparkle of her eyes." He is going to inject her with something that will turn her into a shrieking hag so she won't distract him, when Weymouth attacks. They grapple, the needle being a point of danger, until they both fall over the side.

"There are moments of which no man can recall his mental impressions, moments so acutely horrible that, mercifully, our memory retains nothing of the emotions they occasioned." Petrie skips a bit and the next thing he knows they have run aground and are being flooded. Fortunately the water wakes Karamaneh and she lets them loose.

* This is a nautical term; if you could throw a piece of hard tack and hit something from the deck then you are sailing TOO CLOSE. In this case, Petrie is happy they are that close and would happily throw biscuits at them if he were free and had a packet to hand.

** Methods of torture. A wire jacket might be used to perform 'the death of a thousand cuts', a practice that had been outlawed in China (in 1905).

*** Oo-er.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fu-Manchu Chapter Twenty Five

(I'm reading The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu also known as The Mystery of Fu-Manchu. As Chapter Twenty Five opens our heroes have been captured.)

Petrie wakes, and is being carried along a corridor with strange giant mushrooms in. I know the feeling. He's dumped on the ground and hears Smith's voice as well as the sound of something being hit but he is too dozy to react. I know that feeling as well. Then Fu-Manchu arrives. "Fu-Manchu picked his way through the fungi ranks as daintily as though the distorted, tumid things had been viper-headed."

The noise stops as Fu-Manchu closes a door. Fu-Manchu admits to being impressed by their exploits and so will keep them alive... for now. But maybe not Inspector Weymouth. "You are about to enjoy an unique opportunity of studying fungology. I have already drawn your attention to the anaesthetic properties of the lycoperdon, or common puff-ball." He has a new variety of his own*.

Petrie is unhappy**. Fu-Manchu "the greatest fungologist the world has ever known" has set a trap for the detectives assaulting his house. The toadstools explode when exposed to light the spores causing the men to go mad. Then the white empusa falls from the ceiling, covering them and growing over them.

"It is my fly-trap!" shrieked the Chinaman. "And I am the god of destruction!"***

* "Note the snowy growth upon the roof, Doctor. Do not be deceived by its size. It is a giant variety of my own culture and is of the order empusa. You, in England, are familiar with the death of the common house-fly—which is found attached to the window-pane by a coating of white mold. I have developed the spores of this mold and have produced a giant species. Observe the interesting effect of the strong light upon my orange and blue amanita fungus!"

** "For my own part, I could have shrieked in pure horror. FOR I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING."

*** Petrie also remarks, "I felt assured of something I had long suspected: that that magnificent, perverted brain was the brain of a homicidal maniac—though Smith would never accept the theory." May have to come back to that; why does Smith not think that Fu-Manchu is a homicidal maniac? Is there some subtlety to the way a doctor would use the term a hundred years ago? ("Not a psychopath, a high functioning sociopath.")