The London of 1900 was the trading center of the world and the capital of a large empire focused on Asia. East London, an area composed primarily of docks, wharves, sailors’ bars, and working-class slums, was where this international community was centered. It was there that Sax Rohmer’s writing career began. His job was to report on the criminal elements in the Limehouse area of East London. There he had the opportunity to meet the prototypes of the characters who were to populate his novels. He also witnessed, at first hand, the frightening settings for many of his novels. What set Rohmer apart was his ability to blend his reportorial observations with his skill as a thriller writer.
The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu
Although Rohmer’s first published short story appeared in 1903, it was not until 1912 that his archvillain was introduced. “The Zayat Kiss,” published in October, 1912, in The Story-Teller, introduced Dr. Fu Manchu, the evil Asian genius, to the British thriller-reading public. Over the next ten issues a series of adventures pitted Fu Manchu against the forces of good, each adventure ending with the Chinese villain on the verge of victory. Finally, in the tenth episode, the sinister Mandarin was vanquished. In 1913, the serialized adventures were collected into a book, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, and published in both Great Britain and the United States.
Over the next four years two more episodic thrillers were serialized, then published in book form. Rohmer grew weary of the doctor and had the archfiend killed at the end of The Si-Fan Mysteries (1917). Thirteen years later, however, Rohmer resurrected his villain; using the same formula as before, he published seven new Fu Manchu novels in eleven years. It was during this period that Rohmer was most popular. These later novels differed from the earlier ones in several ways; in particular, they dealt less with the Yellow Peril and more with the themes of the 1930’s. Following World War II, Rohmer published three more Fu Manchu novels, the last of which appeared in the year of his death, 1959.
The Asian Menace, Vividly Described
Sax Rohmer’s success may be attributed, at least in part, to his very simple formula for writing. First, his plots were never too complex for the average reader. The English-language reading public of that day feared that Asians, through numbers alone, could someday overwhelm Western civilization. If those hordes ever acquired Western technological superiority, it was thought, they would swarm over the West even sooner. As a journalist in an era of sensational journalism, Rohmer was well aware of the success of Yellow Peril stories. Hordes of Asians, however, would make for complicated stories. Rohmer chose instead to use one man to symbolize the Asian menace.Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like [William] Shakespeare and a face like Satan . . . Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present . . . Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.
Rohmer endowed this embodiment of Asian evil with a brilliant mind, one capable not only of using Eastern cunning...
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