Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Yellow Peril strikes again!

Yes, once upon a time in America, people wrote and spoke like that. (White people, anyway.) And the main character that inspired their fear of "the inscrutable Oriental," the first potentially world-dominating supervillain in our culture, turns 100 this year.

Dr. Fu-Manchu, the brilliant scientist whose adventures run through a series of book by Sax Rohmer, actually made his debut in a short story in 1912. But the first novel, "The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu," introduced him to most fans in the United States and United Kingdom in 1913. (It came out in America as "The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu." You could use "Insidious" in book titles back then.)

Without Fu-Manchu, we don't have Dr. No, Dr. Doom, Dr. Evil or any of those guys who wanted to control  the planet (or be paid for not destroying it). Before Fu, even the greatest minds of the criminal underworld were satisfied to mine their little plot of ground: James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, merely wanted to be rich and powerful in London; his interest didn't extend to the rest of England, let alone Europe.

Like Moriarty, Fu is a polymath: a chemist, a biologist, a linguist, an inventor, an art collector and many other things. Unlike Moriarty, he travels with a daughter: Fah Lo Suee, who is nearly his equal in intellect, and whose ivory skin and ruby lips prove irresistible to all men.

Rohmer borrowed his format from Arthur Conan Doyle, who was still writing Holmes stories through the late 1920s. Rohmer's dogged, intelligent Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie stand in capably for Holmes and Dr. Watson, though the stories are told not by Petrie but by archaeologist Shan Greville. His main purpose was to be loved by Fah Lo Suee, whose affections he returned when under her (usually chemical) influence. Otherwise, he loved and eventually married Rima, a woman from his own culture.

Titan Books is reissuing the Fu-Manchu catalog. This month brought "The Mask of Fu-Manchu," in which the doctor attempts to bring down the British Empire by reviving a long-dead prophet and inciting a Muslim revolt. The writing can be a little pulpy: "Transfixed by the glow of those green eyes, I seemed to become rigid; their power was awful...I was fascinated but appalled -- fascinated by the genius of the Chinese doctor, appalled by the fact that he employed that genius not for good, but for evil."

Yet Fu-Manchu has a rigid moral code, too. He never breaks his word. He never hurts individuals who do not directly oppose him. (He thinks in terms of nations, not people.) He's a gentleman toward women, though he never courts any. He shares scientific knowledge, when it cannot be used against him. He has an inherent nobility that none of the wicked doctors who would come after him showed.

Before World War I, it was still possible to respect your enemy and treat him as your equal or even your superior, while you tried to undo him at the same time. After the madness of the trenches, that would never be possible again.