This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Some people might be wondering why I’ve chosen The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer as a text for InSpyNoMo. Basically, if you at all consider Ian Fleming’s 007 series to be a major influence in the genre (like it or loathe it), then you have to consider a number of texts that came before it and The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu is one of them. (Another is ‘Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond.)
While undoubtedly one of the most absurdly racist series ever written, the Fu Manchu series is highly influential. In terms of actual ability, Sax Rohmer is a second-rate hack at best. His works are loaded with his own personal paranoia about the Far East, which were largely unfelt by the rest of Europe at the time he was writing, so not exactly one to read for historical accuracy. In a number of places I think there’s some evidence that suggests this paranoias spills into obsessive delusion. However, his works achieve two key things that did help shape the genre.
The stories are told via a Watson-type character, a doctor named Petrie, who is long-time friends with Nayland Smith, the true hero of the series. He acts as an aide and a sounding board to Nayland and, though he often muddles things up, he inevitably does something to enable Nayland to
First, Rohmer established the secret agent as hero. Nayland Smith, though he is never outright called a spy, is clearly a Secret Service agent, a servant of the British government sent out to gather information and take action in foreign countries against potential enemies of Britain. He’s one of those heroes who is virtually infallible, yet bares the scars of battle. He can fight and spar with as much ease and seeming grace as he does manoeuver upper-class circles. He’s brusque and taciturn, yet suave and a gentleman. He’s tough and sentimental. Smith is a civil servant devoted to the office he serves, yet he gets bored with inactivity and will often act rashly in order to speed things up a bit. In short, he bears all the paradoxes and character traits we recognise in James Bond.
(He is also hilariously described as ‘rapping’ out his dialogue, which I take to mean more ‘barking’ or ‘speaking with sharp intent’ than as a wonderful precursor to hiphop.)
Second, Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is the first truly evil mortal villain. I say ‘mortal’ because of course Dracula, et al., are all awful. But Fu Manchu is a man to fear because he is a man who seems like a god. He has built an empire around him, made up of followers who practically worship him. He has spies and consorts everywhere, virtually no move the hero makes goes undetected (and even when it does, Fu Manchu seems to maintain his one step ahead). He has the ability to infiltrate any circle, any class, and disguise himself undetectably. He is a criminal mastermind, who gains control over the minds of men and the bodies of women. The true horror surrounding Fu Manchu goes well beyond his racist roots.
Rohmer’s villain is a horrible thing to witness because he is able to shift seamlessly from a harmless old man to a baleful murderer in a matter of nanoseconds. He is horrible because he is an independent. He isn’t really attached to any government, and he’s so wealthy there’s no real need for him to commit the crimes he does. He does them largely for sport. However, the most terrible feature about him is that while our heroes wish him to be unknowable, something that is completely Other, they are all too aware that he represents all that we could become. He reminds us that evil is just as obtainable as good. Worst of all, he is uncatchable. I’ve not read the final book of the series, but as far as I can make out Fu Manchu always manages to wriggle out at the last moment, making him a perfect object a for Nayland to for ever chase after.
The portrayal of both the hero and the villain in Rohmer ultimately carved out how these character were to function in the sensational branch of the genre. Time and again we find the hero and villain held up alongside each other — seemingly diametrically opposed, yet frighteningly similar.
Fleming uses this dichotomy throughout the 007 series. Bond often remarks a grudging admiration, even affinity, for the villains he comes up against. Indeed, the villains usually possess similar character traits to Bond, holding them up against him as though reflected back in a distorted mirror.
In setting up Bond as a Super Hero Fleming takes this idea of the Super Villain and applies it to every villain Bond ever faces. Each of them is horrifying because they are so powerful and seem so unstoppable. Certainly, this can be seen in what is perhaps the most famous tribute to Fu Manchu: Dr No, whose own physical deformities (his heart is on the other side of his body) gain him wealth and power (because he seems invincible) and an entire island to rule (populated with devoted followers), and from which to take over the world (with the help of the Russians, who he will terminate once he’s in absolute power). But there, Fleming finishes the job by eventually allowing Bond to kill him and return home victorious. Perhaps, Bond’s successes are in part Fleming’s attempt to ‘correct’ Nayland Smith’s constant failure to secure the capture of Fu Manchu.
These stories are, as I said, exceedingly racist and make for uncomfortable reading because of it. As a white Canadian/British girl, I was aghast and not a little ashamed at the gross stereotyping and horrific way Rohmer paints anyone who is not white and British. He was practically fanatical in it, he intended these stories to be cautionary tales about the ‘wily’ and ‘dangerous’ East. But I don’t think it’s particularly useful to say it was a product of its time and push all that stuff under the carpet. If anything, in being confronted with such blatant prejudice the reader becomes forced to acknowledge latent racisms that continue to be present in whatever society they live in, which by default enters them into a dialogue that has the power to propagate change. And this, though clearly not what the author intended, is well worth any embarrassment felt in reading.