Thursday, February 13, 2020

Book Review - The Hand of Fu-Manchu

As a child/youth, I have vague memories of seeing a movie or TV show featuring the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu and I seem to recall him (or someone like him) making an appearance in Scooby Doo cartoons. I also knew that the "fu manchu" mustache was named for this character. Those vague memories and associated details left me pretty much in the dark as to the novels and movies of Dr. Fu Manchu. My reading adventure with the Dr. began with his third book, The Hand of Fu-Manchu.

The style and structure immediately felt familiar. Published in the early 1900s, the writing had that formal feel. It also felt very similar to a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story. I sensed a direct parallel between the Fu-Manchu pair of Nayland Smith / Dr. Petrie and the Conan Doyle pair of Holmes / Watson. Smith has his own distinctive methods for puzzling through problems and coming up with solutions. Meanwhile Petrie (also a Doctor) serves as narrator and foil for Smith as he works through the case.


I've seen some criticism that the book/series is racially insensitive and inaccurate. I can certainly see where these attacks are coming from. The portrayal of Chinese culture in this book can be taken as demeaning and vilifying. Very few Chinese characters with any redeeming qualities at all. Most are either neutral characters (who are found wallowing in vice in opium dens) or evil characters either directly in league with Fu-Manchu or engaged in their own form of civil and cultural disobedience.

While this portrayal is wildly inaccurate, what it does portray is the feeling of "Yellow Peril" that did exist in the time period and persisted for many decades. This certainly does not excuse the author for his one-sided portrayal of Chinese culture but it does help put some perspective on the presentation.

I tried to take the racially charged aspects with a grain of salt in much the same way as when I read Huckleberry Finn. I also try to remind myself that we have come a long way over the course of a century and that we aren't so racially insensitive. Then I see news articles about racial profiling and hate crimes and I cringe to remember that even though we've progressed away from many of these behaviors, many of the underlying attitudes and ideas are still present. There is danger in letting this novel vilify an entire race of people, but I think we need to look at it as a warning and take a look in the mirror and make sure we are not perpetuating those types of behaviors even in small ways.


Back to the main plot and structure of the novel...without spoiling it. I can't compare with other Fu-Manchu books but I felt like the opening to this may have been a slight departure from previous stories. Smith and Petrie seem to have been off on their own pursuits and they're called in on a case with an unclear trajectory. As they realize and acknowledge the involvement of Fu-Manchu, things ramp up in intensity. We learn that Petrie has had a love interest (or at least a crush) in previous stories and she is going to arrive on the scene and be in peril. In addition, each of our protagonists faces danger and tragedy at numerous parts in the story.

Just as I found parallels between Smith/Petrie and Holmes/Watson, I found the general structure of adventure to be familiar. At the same time, it had some great twists and nuances that I really enjoyed. I was impressed by some of the surprises the author sprung on our heroes and the readers. There were a number of moments I found myself taken off guard and excited to see what happened next.

I particularly liked the character of Fu-Manchu. Unlike Professor Moriarty (who I felt like I didn't get to know very much), I felt like this book really explored the character of Dr. Fu-Manchu. He shows up in lengthy scenes where we get to watch his scheming and learn of his plans. We hear numerous conversations between he and his henchmen as they plot or as he gives instruction. We also see how viscously cruel he can be but also that he has some code of honor that he follows.

One scene that I particularly enjoyed for its portrayal of the evil Doctor was when he captured Dr. Petrie. His goal wasn't merely to use Petrie as bait for a trap or to torture him for information. Fu-Manchu had a much different need for Petrie. The scene involving the two men was suspenseful, tense and well written. Part of me wanted to doubt the credulity of the actions but the rest of me found joy and intrigue into what it revealed about Fu-Manchu's character.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was a fun adventure with creative and exciting twists and turns. The racial negativity is its biggest downside and while that can certainly be ignored, doing so does a greater disservice to the treat and reality of racism. I feel that the book can, and should, be read and enjoyed but that readers should be willing to have an open conversation (with themselves or others) about the racial problems with the book and what they can/should learn from them. I am willing and interested in reading more adventures of Fu-Manchu.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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