Friday, February 22, 2013

FFB: President Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

What do South American spiders, neurotoxic drugs, booby-trapped sewers and Huey Long have in common? Why President Fu Manchu (1936), of course. Fu Manchu turns 100 years old this month. I know it's hard to believe because he always seemed so ancient in the books, but it's true nonetheless. The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (published in the US as The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) was published in February 1913 and introduced to the world one of the greatest master criminals in all of crime fiction. He lived out his nefarious deeds in thirteen novels and one collection of stories. Remarkably, five of the titles were just reprinted by Titan Books last year. What better way to end President's week than to salute Rohmer's immortal creation in the most unusual book of the series.

But Huey Long? Really? I hear you ask in your usual puzzled voice. Well, a reasonably facsimile of Huey Long. Much to my surprise Rohmer ripped his plot from the headlines circa 1935 and fashioned the only Fu Manchu novel set in the good ol' U S of A, soon to be the writer's adopted home. Just as Sinclair Lewis was inspired by Long's politics to write It Can't Happen Here Rohmer turned social and political critic in writing the eighth adventure of the Asian evildoer. To the possible nightmare of a totalitarian American government Rohmer adds his unique pulp action ingredients resulting in the oddest of books in the series. For after all no one can really overthrow a government without resorting to drug-induced amnesia, assassination by post-hypnotic suggestion and eliminating your enemies with venomous spiders, now can they?

If you're a good student of American history then you know all about Huey Long. Even if you're a good student of cinema or literature you should be relatively acquainted with him. All the King's Men, anyone? Long, of course, was the outspoken Louisiana governor who ruled the state like a tyrant, was elected to the US Senate, and attempted a bid for presidential nomination. His dream of becoming America's first dictator ended with an assassin's bullet. About the time of Long's race for the White House Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial priest with a radio talk show and former supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, took to the airwaves to help boost Long's chief executive aspirations.

In Rohmer's novel Long is transformed into Harvey Bragg; Coughlin becomes Patrick Donegal, the Abbot of the Holy Thorn; and Long's political rival, socialist Norman Thomas, appears as Dr. Orwin Prescott. The similarities are uncanny extending even to Bragg's organization of followers called the League of Good Americans and his catchphrase "America for every man and every man for America" which reflect the motto "Every Man is King" for Long's Share Our Wealth Society. How's that for ripped from the headlines? If Rohmer were alive today would he be a scriptwriter for Law & Order? Imagine how more fun that show would be with plots borrowed from current affairs and then gussied up with exotic poisons derived from tropical plants and zombie-like murderers on the rampage in Manhattan.

Fu Manchu is everywhere!
Detective Comics (August 1938)
An upcoming debate in which Bragg will go opposite Dr. Orwin Prescott (modeled on a debate Long had with Thomas) is the focus of an involved plot orchestrated by Fu Manchu's ubiquitous network of spies and killers. In a scene that foreshadows The Manchurian Candidate by nearly three decades we watch as a nearby Si-Fan agent utters the key word "Asian" and Herman Gosset, a thug for hire previously drugged and now under the influence of post-hypnotic orders, shoots Bragg dead in full view of spectators during the debate. Chaos ensues! Meanwhile Dr. Prescott, also under the influence of a mind altering drug, has been left babbling a  maze of meaningless words and is looking like a boy lost at the World's Fair.

It's up to Nayland Smith (formerly of Scotland Yard and now a Federal Agent #56 in the employ of the US government) and his Marine captain associate Mark Hepburn to put an end to Fu Manchu's reign of terror and prevent his choice for the presidential nomination from capturing the hearts of America the way Bragg had. But with The League of of Good Americans now in the hands of the Si-Fan and slowly taking over the agriculture and business worlds it may be already too late for the country.

Any attempt to overlook Rohmer's usual race issues will frustrate the reader. Discussions of race are as omnipresent as the myriad cast of Si-Fan agents popping up on every page. Depending almost exclusively on race or nationality characters are labeled as sexual predators ("negroid" and "quadroon"), devious (Jews) and untrustworthy (Italians) to name the most blatant examples. Is it any surprise that Paul Salvaletti, the person elected as Fu Manchu's real presidential hopeful, is of Italian descent? Never mind that someone born in Italy could never be elected to the presidency. This little matter of the Constitution seems to have eluded both the world's most devious master criminal and Rohmer himself. Or is it all just literary license?

There may be the standard pulp trappings of Sax Rohmer to spice up the proceedings, but the most remarkable thing about the book is his insightful observations about the power of rhetoric to build or destroy a politician's career and reputation. Bragg, Donegal and even Prescott are all described to have near magical powers in their speech making and vocabulary. The evil doctor and his Chinaman assistant Sam Pak even discuss their utter fear of Abbot Donegal who is the only man who can single-handedly collapse Fu Manchu's carefully constructed plan. And what is it about the Abbot they fear the most? The information he will relay via a radio broadcast. Words. Nothing but words.

The final chapters offer eyebrow raising scenes with Fu Manchu acting nobly and heroic before he once again eludes a face to face capture at the hands of Nayland Smith. There is also a spectacular disaster that may recall the events of 9/11 to some readers. And in the final two paragraphs Sax Rohmer gives us his most brilliant cliffhanger echoing another famous cliffhanger from a classic short story by another writer. From a Huey P. Long clone to surreal methods of murder to the fear of words and rhetoric and surprising atypical behavior from the master villain himself President Fu Manchu is surely one of the most unusual entries in the whole series.

10 comments:

  1. I'll have to put my hands up and admit that while I have read a few short stories and seem some of the movies (particularly like the one with Karloff and the first in the Christopher Lee series), I have yet to read any of the novels - but this sounds abssolutely terrific John - I had no idea how topical this one might and I am definitely tracking this one down - is it one of the titles that got the recent reprint treatment? Thanks again - my TBR pile now has its own JF Norris annex, you devil you!

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    1. Sorry to report this one has not been reprinted in the series by Titan. But there are over 50 copies for sale on the internet of either of the Pyramid paperback editions for $8 or less. I was all ready to make analogies between Bragg and GWB in mhy review. I had lots of notes about that. I was genuinely surprised by the Huey Long business which was revealed to me in an essay by Rick Lai on a Wold Newton website. (Must give credit where it is due). I read the first three Fu Manchu novels a long time ago and remember only the bizarreness of the thugs and dacoits and the poisons. In this book the last ten chapters were very different from any Rohmer book I've read and I've mostly stuck with his horror and supernatural novels. The ending on this one is just perfect!

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    2. Thanks as always John, I really want to start somewhere with Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels and this sounds really intriguing.

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  2. You've sold me on this, John. I've read nothing by Sax Rohmer, but trust this is a good place to start.

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  3. I read several Fu Manchu novels back when Pyramid Books was publishing them. Sadly, the quality of the books fell off near the end. But the early books are exciting and fun (although not Politically Correct today).

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  4. Bizarre. It reminds me of the OPERATOR 5 "Blood Reign of the Dictator" pulp novel which did the Huey Long menace better than anyone else.

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  5. I don't know if this is for me, John, but you do make it sound very exciting. I think it's time for you to put your reviews in a book and publish them - they're that good.

    At any rate, if I might be tempted to read this if I ever came across it. :)

    P.S. I'm reading you know what and you know what and I'm absolutely LOVING them. Both. These are really fun books. Again: thank you.

    In the meantime: Have you heard of a book titled MURDER IN THE MEWS by Helen Reilly? I know Christie wrote a story with the same title but I just ran across the very intriguing cover of the Reilly book and I was just wondering...

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  6. I was reading Rohmer last year and had to admit he knows how to spin a yarn. The American mystery writer Todd Downing, a mixed-blood Choctaw who was strongly anti-imperialism, grew up reading Sax Rohmer in the 1910s and loved his stuff.

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  7. Wow, Chan and Fu Manchu in the same week! It must be Far East (or West Pacific) week. How cool. I have read the first three or four, and have others, but never got to this one. Honestly, it sounds like a weak book in the series, except for that cliffhanger ending.

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  8. The cover of Fu Manchu in Detective Comics was enough to push me towards reading some of the long-downloaded ebooks of Sax Rohmer including THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (which you have mentioned), THE HAND OF FU-MANCHU, and THE RETURN OF DR. FU-MANCHU. I guess THE INSIDIOUS... is the best place to begin reading Rohmer's novels. Unfortunately, I can't trace the comic-book online. Many thanks, John.

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