Friday, February 4, 2011

Blogging Sax Rohmer’s The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Part Three – “The Avenue Mystery”

“The Avenue Mystery” was the third installment of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu and Company. The story was first published in Collier’s on February 6, 1915 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 7-10 of the second Fu-Manchu novel, The Devil Doctor first published in the UK in 1916 by Cassell and in the US by McBride & Nast under the variant title, The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu.

While I hold political correctness in contempt recognizing it to be censorship under a different guise, it is inevitable that in revisiting books or films of the past one encounters racial or sexist stereotypes that are now offensive. I do not support banning a work or editing for content anymore than I support minimalizing the issues raised by their inclusion. A simple disclaimer noting offensive content is contained that reflects acceptable attitudes at the time of the work’s creation should suffice to address the matter.

Readers of pulp adventure or mystery fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are accustomed to offensive stereotypes of Asian, African, Italian, Greek, and Jewish characters among others. While Rohmer’s early Fu-Manchu stories contain a good deal less racial stereotyping of Asians than film adaptations or illustrations of the character would suggest; a lamentable streak of anti-Semitism runs through “The Avenue Mystery.” This fact is all the more regrettable because the Jewish character in question, Mr. Abel Slattin ranks among Rohmer’s finest bit players.

Slattin is a private eye, although Nayland Smith credits him as “little more than a blackmailer.” He agrees to pass information concerning Fu-Manchu in exchange for Smith’s offer of one thousand pounds provided Smith first drafts a legally-binding contract. Slattin is bold and clever and terribly amoral. Slattin is an assumed name, his real surname is Pepley and the CID’s records reveal him to be a disgraced American police officer.

Along with the emphasis on his Semitic appearance and resulting negative personality traits, Abel Slattin is delineated by the walking stick he carries that is adorned with the semblance of an adder. A curio he picked up in Australia, Slattin claims (in fact, Rohmer lifted the walking stick from Guy Boothby’s Dr. Nikola series) that it is rumored to be the Biblical Rod of Aaron.


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