Because Kindle offered “The Classic Mystery Collection” for $9.95, I’ve been reading Sax Roehmer’s Dr. Fu-Manchu mysteries. The name was only a strange appellation to me before. I had a vague visual image of a Chinese man with a remarkable mustache and long fingers and even longer fingernails. But I’d never given the fellow much thought.
Except for some early Sambos in old bookstores, I’ve never encountered anything quite so thick with racial stereotypes in my life as these books. In the two I’ve read, the whole East–Near and Far–is yellow, with huge emerald green eyes or utterly black ones, and irremediably Evil. The story-teller is Dr. Petrie, a sort of Watson to Nayland Smith, a Sherlock Holmes who was, it’s said, actually Holmes’ nephew. Smith acts something like Holmes but he’s not nearly as bright. Nearly every adventure in the two books I read happens in warehouses on London’s waterfront which were really fronts for opium dens; houses with eerie histories, where the moon never shines at night and there’s nothing to see until Fu-Manchu’s creatures appear, whether as poisonous spiders or snakes, dacoits brandishing scimitars ( a bandit, usually Indian or Burmese) , exotic women whose charms are the devil’s own, or Dr. Fu-Manchu himself. Though, to keep the stories sufficiently mysterious, his appearances are rare,as well as extraordinary. He’s tall, robed in yellow, with a presence that’s so overpowering, he needs only look at his victims and they’re lost. He is invested in taking over the world. He is the yellow peril.
“In the high-backed chair sat Dr. Fu-Manchu, wearing a green robe upon which was embroidered a design, the subject of which at first glance was not perceptible, but which presently I made out to be a huge white peacock. He wore a little cap perched upon the dome of his amazing skull, and with one clawish hand resting upon the ebony of the table, he sat slightly turned toward me, his emotionless face a mask of incredible evil. In spite of, or because of, the high intellect written upon it, the face of Dr. Fu-Manchu was more utterly repellent than any I have ever known, and the green yes, eyes green as those of a cat in the darkness, which sometimes burned like witch lamps, and sometimes were horribly filmed like nothing human or imaginable, might have mirrored not a soul, but an emanation of hell, incarnate in this gaunt, high-shouldered body.”
Fu-Manchu and his kindred are the unholy others that we seem to require. They’re much more and much less than human beings. There’s something animal about them at the same time as they have intellects and powers we can only marvel at.
When, during World War II, the Chinese were briefly our allies, entertainments about the Doctor were discouraged. We have, many times in our history, created, destroyed and recreated stereotypes of the other: Mexicans, Asians of every kind, the Irish, Jews….. Another book on the same Kindle special is a World War I novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart where Germans, who by then formed a large part of the American population, become the enemy. They were the Communists of their day, but worse, they were that because of features characteristic of the race: their reverence for authority, their love of order….
It’s much harder today to stereotype with the kind of abandon Sax Roehmer lavished on his characters. Many of us are fastidious about our language. Bill Maher’s jokes are subjected to scrutiny, politicians leap at every conceivable breach of political correctness; racial epithets and jokes are best kept private. I’m glad. But I’ve had fun reading Fu-Manchu. I wonder if the love of vampires and the interest in science fiction are fueled in part by our need for “the other.” For someone to laugh at. For someone to hate. For someone to blame for everything that goes wrong in our lives.