Friday, October 31, 2014

FFB: The Mask of Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer never ceases to amaze me. For a writer who arguably created fiction's most infamous master criminal and indulged in some of the most macabre aspects of sensation and pulp fiction (some have never surpassed him in my opinion) he also managed to use the thriller as his sounding board for his political views. Am I reading too much into this in light of the recent headline making news of the events in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan? I don't think so. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) seems exceptionally pertinent now in light of recent world affairs. It gets my vote for one of the earliest thrillers dealing with religious fundamentalism as a platform for terrorist activity.

A British archeological expedition in Iran comes to a halt with the discovery of the murdered body of Dr. Van Berg. The only entrance to his hotel bedroom was the open window thirty feet above ground and yet no ladder could have been used to gain entry without any seen or heard it being done. Adding to the mystery of how the assailant entered the room so swiftly and silently is the aroma of mimosa that pervades the room. A strange nearly intoxicating scent that lingers in the air adding an exotic mystery to the murder scene so typical of Rohmer's books.

Local authorities get word that the expedition is honing in on the site of ancient artifacts belonging to the revered Muslim El Mokanna, known also as "The Veiled Prophet" though someone is quick to point out that this is a misnomer for El Mokanna actually wore a mask. It is the mask, sword and tablets purportedly carrying the text of the New Koran that are thought to be the reason for Van Berg's death.  His murder is viewed as a fatal warning to the crew to stop their digging and searching. Sir Lionel Barton, "the greatest living Orientalist in the Western world", will have none of it. He continues with his work and succeeds in finding those treasures. And then the trouble really begins.

Mask of Fu Manchu is narrated by Shan Greville, Barton's right hand man on the expedition. He is looking forward to ending this project so he and his fiancé can return to London and get married. Anyone who knows anything about books like this immediately knows this love affair will be targeted by the nefarious Fu Manchu and his minions. No sooner does Rima appear but she is threatened and eventually kidnapped. By her own husband to be! Greville himself is abducted when he is tricked into following a figure wearing what appears to be El Mokanna's mask. Turns out it's Fu Manchu's deadly and beautiful daughter Fah Lo Sueee. Greville meets up with Fu Manchu, is restrained by some dangerous African servants, and drugged with one of Rohmer's ubiquitous mind controlling opiates. A drug distilled from the seeds of the mimosa pudica has been used to anesthetize Greville which he quickly associates with the botanical aroma back at the murder scene. We also learn that Fu Manchu has been preparing an elixir of life derived from a rare Burmese orchid. An essential oil created from the flower is the secret ingredient in the formula that has prolonged his life and bestowed an ageless appearance.

You can only marvel at the sheer excess of this story. Fu Manchu is once again aided by a veritable army of Asians, Africans and Muslims all with athletic agility and superhuman strength. In addition to an array of exotic poisons and mind controlling drugs there is a super strong cord created from spider silk that is used as a weapon, a restraint and as means of travelling between the balconies and rooftops of high-storied buildings. Did Stan Lee read these books, too? You can't help but think of Peter Parker's inventions when you get to this part.

Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, of course, make an appearance and are on hand to save the day as they do battle with their perennial nemesis. The story travels from Iran to Cairo to the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza where another impossible event occurs. From Egypt our intrepid band travel via ocean liner back to London where the climax reveals Fu Manchu's real plans for world domination using his duped zealous followers of El Mokanna.



I haven't read a more breathtaking, high speed chase, action thriller like this in a long time. It's no wonder the wizards of Hollywood were continually drawn to these books as a source for the good ol' fashioned cliffhanger serials of the past. Oddly, the movie version of The Mask of Fu Manchu is even more over-the-top than the book. Gone is all of the religion and quasi-politics. The emphasis is not on zealotry, the dangers of blind faith, and how easily it is manipulated for ill purposes. Instead, the mask and tomb belong to Ghengis Khan and we get an abundance of pulp thriller trappings as indomitable Boris Karloff and ethereally gorgeous Myrna Loy, portraying the evil father and daughter, play havoc with our heroes' lives and threaten world peace. Rohmer's love of botanical poisons and drugs are not surprisingly replaced with an arsenal of venomous creatures. Too strange is the torture sequence in which we watch handsome and rugged Charles Starrett as Greville (renamed Terence Granville in the movie) stripped naked and strapped to a table while Karloff looking like an insane surgeon in his mask, gown, and gloves subjects his victim to injections taken from giant spiders and snakes. And Greville isn't the only victim. The entire band of archeologists is captured and restrained in a variety of old movie torture devices from spiked moving walls to a pit of alligators.

As of March 2014 Titan Books has now reprinted eleven of the thirteen Fu Manchu books. Luckily, The Mask of Fu Manchu is one they chose to include. It's available in paperback from most retailers in the UK and US. For those who prefer the older editions, you can find multiple copies of the many US and UK vintage paperbacks available through the used book market, usually for sale at $7 or less per copy. This book review serves as my contribution to the "1932 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" sponsored by Rich Westwood. Visit his blog Past Offences to read more posts on books others found of interest from this exceptional vintage year.

11 comments:

  1. When I first came to Rohmer's books some time back, I was surprised by what a zestful storyteller he really is. As for the film, oh my! Over-the-top and beyond-the-limit!

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  2. Thanks John. I recently read the first Fu-Manchu, and was struck by the scope of Rohmer's murderous invention. Zest is definitely the word.

    And even though you haven't highlighted any spine-chilling quotes, I reckon you've reviewed the scariest book this month, so you get to choose the year for November's challenge.

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  3. I have yet to try anything by Rohmer but I've had a couple of seemingly very erudite and sensible friends of mine sing his praises when it comes to the subtext of the Fu Manchu stories, so will definitely give them a go - I fact, I think i have a copy of FU MANCHU FOR PRESIDENT from your review of that title!

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    1. I liked this one more than PRESIDENT FU MANCHU which is a lot more about Rohmer's politics. I read the first three Fu Manchu books ages ago in rapid succession but found I enjoyed his horror novels a lot more so I stopped reading them. Now I 'm catching up on the remaining Fu Manchu books but I guess I should be reading them in order. This one refers to an earlier book in which Greville and Rima also appear. I'm not sure which one, but they keep referring to the events that took place in theTomb of the Apes in the Valley of Kings. My guess is it's THE DAUGHTER OF FU MANCHU which immediately precedes this book; one I've not read.

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  4. Rohmer's best known for the Fu Manchu books - and you're so right about their being over the top. But he also wrote a number of other books, mostly thrillers, and even some mysteries. If you can find a copy of "The Dream Detective," short stories about the really odd antiquarian Moris Klaw who detects by going to sleep at the scene of the crime and getting an impression of the criminal's mind, it's very much worth reading!

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    1. Les, my introduction to Rohmer was, of course, through his supernatural books. I read all I could find over a two year period. Then did my best to collect the entire set in first editions. I have all of them now, many in their lurid DJs. BROOD OF THE WITCH QUEEN is one of my favorites. I like Moris Klaw (and his eerie daughter Isis) too, but was disappointed that in all but one of the stories the supernatural events were rationalized. I wrote a piece about THE DREAM DETECTIVE more than ten years ago for "The Weird Review" which no longer exists on the web, but you can still read the article at the Fu Manchu website run by Laurence Knapp by clicking here.

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  5. Yes, this is a really good one, one of my favorites of the Fu Manchu canon.

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    1. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this even with all the ignorant references to the Africans and Chinese that kept me shaking my head. You can imagine the words Rohmer used. Oddly, there were no epithets used when discussing the Muslims...or Moslems as he spelled it.

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  6. Pretty much everything Rohmer wrote is worth reading. His horror/supernatural fiction is every bit as good as his thrillers. Ian Fleming cited Rohmer as a major influence on his on work.

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  7. Great review, John. I love your enthusiasm for this book. I have never read any of the Fu Manchu books or anything else by Rohmer. I should remedy that. I have seen the movie with Myrna Loy though. And would not mind seeing it again.

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  8. I haven't gotten this far in the series, but am only a couple of books away (I think, if I have the series order correct). Sounds like a good one.

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