The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu was originally published in 1913, and then followed with a succession of other novels dealing with the evil mastermind. They were recently (2012-ish) all reprinted, and I leapt, very slowly, at the chance to read a series which is poorly-remembered but had a giant cultural impact.
The book follows Dr. Petrie (the narrator) and Nayland Smith in their quest to put a stop to the machinations of Dr. Fu-Manchu, a man who seeks to bring down the entire Western world. The narrative is a loosely-connected series of plots, thwarted or otherwise, in which Fu-Manchu tries to gain some advantage, and the detectives attempt to stop him. There is an overall arc, in which the net of the law slowly tightens around Fu-Manchu’s operations and side-characters recur. It’s not a clear enough thread to stop the plot dragging occasionally, but it gives some sense of progression and closure throughout the book.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is very reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries, right down to the narration by a slightly confused doctor. There’s a driven detective, an evil doctor adversary, and a chorus of bumbling policemen. As it comes from roughly the same era, the writing is stylistically similar, with lots of long and complex sentences – if you find Conan Doyle dense and impenetrable, this will seem so too. It’s not as well written as Conan Doyle’s work, falling flat in places and becoming tedious (partly due to passive, reactive characters), but overall Rohmer manages to keep the pace up.
The mysteries themselves are varied and interesting, generally turning on some secret aspect of Oriental science – Fu-Manchu deploys poisonous animals, mysterious elixirs, and savage tribesmen in the pursuit of his dark ends. It’s nothing amazingly original nowadays, but the age of the work must be borne in mind – the mysteries would have been less predictable a century ago.
Probably the most important aspect of the book to mention is the racism. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu might be the most racist book I’ve ever read (a surprisingly contested title). Asian people are described as debased and criminal. The book unironically uses the phrase “yellow peril”, and the stakes at play are the survival and prosperity of the whole “white race”. Everyone white is basically decent, everyone Asian is savage and inscrutable.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read it – The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu must be understood in relation to the context in which it was written. People genuinely were worried about hordes of manipulative and ignoble chinese people destroying their way of life. Those people were, obviously, totally wrong and horribly xenophobic, but it would be unreasonable and short-sighted to dismiss the work solely on the basis of its origin in a racist culture.
Instead, the racist attitudes that underpin the text should be constantly borne in mind, just as they should be for other authors whose social attitudes often overshadow their work – Lovecraft is probably one of the most obvious examples. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is a book that exists because of its racism, and is a book that is effective because of its racism. It needs to be based on a powerful fear and mistrust of the unfamiliar to work. You can’t ignore or excuse the racist attitudes, but you can use both the text and the views as lenses with which to examine, explore, and understand the other.
In general, the view of Asian people in the book is that they are debased and uncivilised, but there is one exception. Dr. Fu-Manchu himself is presented in a negative way – the character is a big part of the cultural conception in the West of evil mandarins- but he’s also presented as a complex, and, in some ways, honourable character. Fu-Manchu keeps his word. He’s more intelligent than every other character. The narrator – Dr. Petrie – conceives a grudging admiration for him, based on his brilliance and cunning.
So it’s still a (very) racist portrayal, but, just as Fleming’s Mr. Big was seen as alien and evil, but not inferior, Rohmer’s supervillain shows a more nuanced bigotry than might first be expected. Asian people are feared not because they are worse, but because they are alien and inimical. In some ways, it’s an enlightened view.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu isn’t for everyone. Some people struggle to enjoy works that require you to suspend modern social attitudes, some people just aren’t interested in reading about outdated views. Both of those are fine. For my part, I find it fascinating to see how the attitudes affect the work. In addition, it’s rather entertaining.