Friday, January 7, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Part One: “The Wire Jacket”

“The Wire Jacket“ was the first installment of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu and Company. The story made its debut in Collier’s on November 21, 1914 and was later edited to comprise Chapters 1-3 of the second Fu-Manchu novel, The Devil Doctor first published in the UK by Cassell and in the US by McBride & Nast under the variant title, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu.

Rohmer displays an admirable economy of writing with this first sequel to Fu-Manchu. The story opens two years after the events of the original serial with our narrator, Dr. Petrie (his first name is never revealed) enjoying the company of his house guest, Reverend Eltham, the soft-spoken English cleric who 15 years earlier did much to provoke the Boxer Uprising as an intolerant missionary in China.

The two men chat amiably about Nayland Smith, who has returned to his post as Police Commissioner in the British colony of Burma. Petrie hasn’t received a letter from Smith in over two months and attributes it to a love affair gone sour that Smith hinted at in his last letter.

Modern readers may be intrigued by Petrie’s refusal to confirm whether the affair was with a woman or not when asked directly and Eltham’s subsequent remark that Burma makes a mess of a man. Add to it Petrie stating that Smith is never likely to marry now and most readers today will almost certainly conclude that Smith has had a homosexual encounter.

However, it should be noted that Petrie reflects the Edwardian reticence to discuss anything remotely intimate even among friends and his discomfort likely has more to do with Eltham’s probing than any dark secret of Smith’s that he is hiding. Petrie makes mention that Eltham is not at all common for a clergyman and his directness is certainly atypical of English social etiquette then as well as now.


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