Books

The evil genius of Dr Fu Manchu

Sax Rohmer’s lurid novels thrilled Edwardian Britain with their opium dens, thugees and moustachioed super-villain

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

Lord of Strange Deaths: The Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer edited by Phil Baker and Anthony Clayton

Strange Attractor, pp.220, £25 (plus £5 p+p in UK), ISBN: 9781907222252

In late Victorian south London a ‘lower-middle-class’ boy, Arthur Ward, is lingering over his copy of The Arabian Nights. The book falls open at a colour illustration of Scheherazade, mysteriously pictured with a white peacock. Twenty years later, she materialises as Kâramanèh, the dazzling female sidekick of Fu Manchu. Young Arthur, who by now had reinvented himself as Sax Rohmer, was the author of the Fu Manchu novels, and Arthur had faded so far into the background that it seems even Sax Rohmer forgot him. He conjured his pen name from the Saxon, ‘Sax’ for ‘blade’ and ‘rohmer’ which means ‘roamer’. He was in essence the original bladerunner. In this enchantingly playful collection of essays on Rohmer the facts of his life are as vaporous as the pea-soupers that informed his imaginings. As Antony Clayton reports, Arthur’s was a ‘strangely neglected childhood’.

As a songwriter and music-hall sketch writer Rohmer hit the money lode with The Mystery of Doctor Fu-Manchu (1913). The moustachioed super-villain fed the Edwardian appetite for murderous plots involving dacoits and thuggees. He had ‘dragon ladies’ as glamorous assistants. He was an agent of the secret society Si-Fan, and the mastermind behind the assassinations of western imperialists.


In an essay luminous with detail, Ann Witchard describes the sulphurous city in which young Arthur began his plotting, depicted by Whistler swathed in a ghastly yellow, the colour of Wildean decadence. Other essayists provide historical context for Rohmer’s dabblings in the Orient. But what enlivens his fiction is his total disregard for empirical truth. Panics about immigration, a new journalism personified by W. T. Stead, best known for his investigation of child sex trafficking in Lisson Grove, alongside outbreaks of cholera in slums, fed the fears of the reading public. Of all the immigrants, the Chinese were regarded as particularly ‘unassimilable’. Despite the fact that the crime rate actually fell after Chinese families moved into Limehouse, the East End dock became notorious for lurid goings-on. Rohmer took his cue, blending aspects of Egyptomania with Sinophobia for the ‘rot-revellers and tosh-connoisseurs’. For the modern reader, Rohmer offers a ‘luresome’ view of ‘teemful’ early 20th-century London.

Racism is the real scourge of the metro-polis. Phil Baker argues that Rohmer’s ‘opportunistic bigotry’ was more culpable than genuine fear. Witchard says all this fuss about opium and yellow devils was actually Dickens’s fault — Edwin Drood, in particular. But the momentum was in full swing, boosted by a bohemian fascination with intoxication, and the moral majority’s fear of the enemy within.

Enter the Gaiety Girl clad in loose silk robes and warbling against a backdrop of wind chimes. Rohmer based Dope (1919) on the case of Billie Carleton, a starlet who was famously found dead in her Savoy suite the morning after the Armistice night Victory Ball. She had overdosed on drugs supplied by Ada Son Ping Yu, the Scottish wife of a Limehouse Chinese. Another newsworthy fatality involved a nightclub hostess, a stash of cocaine, and a West End playboy known as Brilliant Chang. He became Burma Chang, the evil genius of Rohmer’s Yellow Shadows (1919).

Imperial Gothic, found in writers such as Rider Haggard, and esoteric occultism, with its sinister rites from ‘abroad’, as opposed to a Christianity that could only rustle up a village fête, fed Rohmer’s bank balance throughout his lifetime. But what makes Fu Manchu so beguiling and so long-lived (apart from his elixir of youth, of course)? He is ingenious, agile, a master of disguise. But one of this criminal mastermind’s most distinguishing characteristics is that he keeps his word — the quintessential trait of the English gentleman.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Music Night at the Apollo.

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Show comments
  • Mars Attacks!

    I am curious about the early 20th century’s fascination with Napoleons of Crime who direct vast and secret networks of infamy. In addition to Fu Manchu, Britain also had Doctor Moriarity, while there was Fantômas in France and Dr. Mabuse in post-war Germany.

    What was in the air that made ordinary readers suspect a single hidden hand pulling the strings of all nefariousness?

    • Nordog6561

      Then there are all the Bond villains with secret lairs that require the GDP of most nations to build and maintain.

      • Mars Attacks!

        In the books, the Soviets bankrolled the villains. Hollywood had to change it to Spectre because Communists can never be the bad guys in a Hollywood movie.

        • Demosthenes

          Communism (other than in Cuba and North Korea) died approximately 25 years ago. I don’t count China or Vietnam as they have morphed into authoritarian regimes with mixed economies. North Korea does serve as the “bad guy in some flicks. Cuba really doesn’t serve as a bad guy anymore.

          • Mars Attacks!

            Even in “From Russia With Love” (1963), Hollywood couldn’t stand for the Soviets to be the villains. They made Rosa Klebb an agent of Spectre trying to foment conflict between East and West.

          • Demosthenes

            True. I guess Hollywood has a lot of cowards. Leave it to Seth Rogen to take it to the Commies:

            http://m.imdb.com/title/tt2788710/

          • Callipygian
          • Mars Attacks!

            Like Sherlock Holmes, Bond was created as contemporary fiction but has since become historical fiction. Benedict Cummerbund be damned, Holmes loses all his appeal when you remove him from the fog, damp tweed, gas lamps and the sound of horse hooves on cobblestones.

            And Bond ceases to make sense apart from the Cold War setting and the technologies of that era.

            The book Bond is a man alone in the midst of his enemies with nothing but his wits and his grit to pull him through. The modern movie Bond wears a bluetooth headset and is on the phone with his Mum in midst of action sequences.

            The smartest thing that could be done with Bond is to reboot the series back to a Cold War setting. If adapted faithfully, Moonraker would be better than any of the extant films. Ex-Nazi rocket engineers plotting to drop to a missile armed with a nuclear warhead smack dab on top of Buckingham Palace. A car chase that is resolved when huge rolls of newspaper are pushed from a moving truck and crash onto Bond’s car. Bond reprogramming the rocket’s gyros at the last moment before launch, redirecting the missile onto the submarine in which the villains are escaping. What could be more fun?

          • Callipygian

            Wow, that was very entertaining. I nominate you as story consultant! You’ve certainly persuaded me!

    • Callipygian

      Hey, nice to see you here! :^0

      • Mars Attacks!

        I’ve been looking for a new home with commenter erudition to match the old pre-Trump NRO.

        • Callipygian

          A-ha! Well there is a lot of erudition on this site. And arguing!

  • Suriani

    Osama bin Laden, al Baghdâdi, al Assad..the evil incarnate, Fu Machu personae of our time. It seems some, mostly populist politicians, are in need of the iconic diabolic type.

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