The Trail of Fu Manchu was the seventh of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, appearing in 1934. This is a rather different Fu Manchu - this is Fu Manchu at bay. His nemesis Sir Denis Nayland Smith has gained the upper hand. Fu Manchu’s organisation has been seriously weakened and he is in failing health. As Nayland Smith will find out, he is still a formidable adversary.
Dr Fu Manchu has struck back, using the daughter of of Nayland’s Smith’s friend and comrade-in-arms Dr Petrie as the means for his revenge. And Fu Manchu has ambitious plans that may yet restore his powers and his fortunes. He has discovered a secret that eluded the medieval alchemists. In fact, as we will discover, he has discovered several secrets sought by the alchemists.
As so often Nayland Smith is hampered by the necessity to thwart Fu Manchu’s plans without risking innocent lives. He does have a useful ally in the person of the indefatigable Detective Chief Inspector Gallaho, a man of considerable resource.
The story opens with a typical Sax Rohmer flourish - an amazingly life-like statue that turns out to be more life-like than it should be!
This adventure takes place entirely in London although this does not quite mean that Nayland Smith has the home ground advantage. The slums of Limehouse are not exactly congenial territory in which to wage a battle against a Chinese master criminal. The battle will be waged beneath the streets of London in a hidden world of mystery and danger. There are explosions, secret laboratories and there’s much general mayhem.
There is a reason Fu Manchu is the greatest of all fictional diabolical criminal masterminds. As Fu Manchu himself would doubtless point out he is a criminal merely by necessity, not by inclination. Lacking political power he must make use of whatever methods serve his purpose. And he is not actually evil as such. He has a vision of the future, a world of harmony and order and even beauty. To a westerner like Nayland Smith this ideal world might seem inhuman and even nightmarish but there is no doubting Fu Manchu’s sincerity. He is not a man who delights in destruction for its own sake. Indeed, he is more interested in creating than in destroying. It just happens that in order for Fu Manchu’s world to come into being western civilisation will have to be subjugated.
Sax Rohmer’s theme is the clash of civilisations. Nayland Smith represents the virtues of western civilisation - individualism, initiative, flexibility and respect for freedom. Fu Manchu is the exemplar of a very different civilisation but one with its own virtues - discipline, order and obedience to authority. Both civilisations have their weaknesses. The western world is somewhat chaotic. Fu Manchu’s civilisation is inflexible and tolerates no dissent. It is fundamentally totalitarian.
While Fu Manchu has the greater intellect his followers he has the disadvantage that his followers are little more than automatons. Fu Manchu himself must provide the imagination. Nayland Smith on the other hand has allies rather than followers, men who will risk their lives willingly and who display a certain amount of initiative.
To see Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books as racist is to misunderstand them in a very fundamental manner. Fu Manchu is never portrayed as a representative of an inferior civilisation, merely one which has very different values and priorities. In some ways Fu Manchu represents intellectual attainments that are superior to those of the West. Rohmer certainly believed the two systems were inevitably going to clash, but his views on race were clearly more complex than the usual Yellow Peril idea.
Fu Manchu’s worldview is not wildly dissimilar to that of Rohmer’s other great diabolical criminal mastermind, Sumuru. Sumuru also dreams of a world of peace, harmony and beauty and her methods of bringing this about are equally totalitarian. The Sumuru novels, beginning with The Sins of Sumuru, are also worth reading. Rohmer’s supernatural fiction (in collections such as The Leopard Couch) and his occult detective stories (The Dream Detective) are also excellent.
Sax Rohmer’s work was immensely varied and always fascinating. The Fu Manchu books do need to be read in sequence, starting with The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913, also published as The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu). The Trail of Fu Manchu is not the best of the series but it’s still enormous fun. Highly recommended.