While a lot of my reading has been, in recent years, scholarly in nature--legal history and theology, especially--I still have a balanced literary diet, which must, as the late Dr. Robertson Davies would gleefully point out, include a fair amount of junk. Or, as Harlan Ellison famously called "Doctor Who," elegant trash.
Spelunking around from author to author led me to try Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, in which a thinly disguised Dr. Fu Manchu appears. Which, in turn, led me to wonder: how did this patently racist stereotype become an archetype? I mean, when I was a boy (just turning fourteen, to be precise) my father took me to see Peter Sellers, in his last role, play Fu Manchu. (Helen Mirren's in it, too, proof that great actors sometimes make bad choices.) My curiosity roused, I looked on Kindle to find that the early Sax Rohmer novels are available for virtually no cost, and read four of them.
They are, as narrative, awful, at least the first three, that is. They are episodic, serialized newspaper fiction, with clumsy links, inexplicable gaps, periods of tedium, and shifts in the action that make absolutely no bloody sense whatsoever. Conan Doyle he ain't. And Nayland Smith (he becomes Sir Denis Nayland Smith in the fourth book) is without a doubt the single dopiest leading man in fiction. He blunders from episode to episode, saved by his friend Dr. Petrie, a (beautiful, of course) minion of Fu Manchu who falls for Dr. Petrie, for no adequately explored reason, and a thumping slice of sheer blind luck that leaves Harry Flashman's generous allotment of luck at the gate, looking wistfully on. Nayland Smith is, like Harry Sullivan and all the other devil-may-care square-jawed adventurers after him, an imbecile.
And therein lies the charm.
Fu Manchu runs rings around Nayland Smith. He is by far the superior thinker and reasoner, even though he has a fondness for the over-elaborate, chancy death by exotic insect over a clean shot that makes Anthony Ainley as the Master look like a cunning pragmatist. Ultimately, Fu, and not Smith, is the star of the books.
I noticed this when, at the climax of the second novel, I was mentally berating Nayland Smith for falling into the exact same bloody trap he'd fallen into near the end of the first volume, and cursing Sax Rohmer for his lack of proper novelistic invention, when he showed he in fact possessed it, by having Fu come out and deride Smith for that exact same failure, in almost the very terms in which I'd been doing it. It was the first big laugh of the books, and, fair to say, I believe Rohmer meant it to be.
We're rooting for the villain, the "Other," the alien. All Rohmer's "Yellow Peril" racism cannot hide the fact that Fu is the character who captures the imagination, if anyone on the scene does at all. We even get glimpses that Fu might not be as bad as all that; he shows compunction at moments, saving a police inspector in the first volume, knowing full well that the man will be a minor irritant for volumes to come, because he will return to his duty. He has an open admiration for Dr. Petrie, which may be founded on a mistake (he briefly believes that Petrie is a genius like himself), but his admiration survives his realizing that such is not the case. He has, like the British gentlemen who pursue him, a Word of Honor, and keeps it, just as Nayland Smith does--in that, Peter Sellers is accurate in his depiction of both, as excerpted below. And, of course, in a later novel, it is Fu Manchu who takes on Rohmer's version of Hitler, whom Smith protects.
The books are rubbish, of course; racist rubbish, too, I'm sorry to say (although even in the earliest volumes, set around World War I, the Brits, such as Dr. Petrie, are happy to marry out of their caste in a way that undercuts the racial storyline the main narrative is at pains to construct). But there is something more to them, probably so deeply buried beneath the ruins as to be unsalvageable; an identification with the one we demonize and fear. Fu Manchu is laughable, and yet he commands respect; a distorted mirror image of the British imperialism he confronts.
Edited to Add: At least two friends have pointed out to me that I left off the "best part" of the scene directly above. So have it:
Aye, comedy is, in truth, not pretty.