Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Nine – “The Golden Flask”

“The Golden Flask” was the eighth installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu. First published in THE STORY-TELLER in May 1913, it later comprised Chapters 21-23 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U. S. publication). Rohmer added brief linking material to the start of the story for its book publication in an effort to tie the story closer together with its immediate predecessor. “The Golden Flask” is unique in not being centered upon Dr. Petrie’s infatuation with Karamaneh, but rather upon our heroes’ obsession with bringing Dr. Fu-Manchu to justice.
The story harkens back to “The Zayat Kiss” in being set in motion with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie correctly identifying Henry Stradwick, Lord Southery as the next target of assassination, but being too late to prevent his death. Lord Southery’s physician, Sir Frank Narcombe believes the peer to have expired from heart failure. Oddly, Smith states that neither he nor Petrie represents the official police. A reason for this blatant deception is never given and must be concluded as an error on Rohmer’s part. Reference is made to both Smith and Petrie possessing a supernatural ability to detect Fu-Manchu’s presence at the scene of Lord Southery’s death despite the absence of any clues pointing to foul play. When Petrie describes Smith as looking like “a man consumed by a burning fever,” the reader is completely willing to suspend disbelief and go along with Rohmer’s frenzied paranoia. It is the same mania that captivated Petrie (and, by extension, the reader) at the start of “The Zayat Kiss.”
Feeling powerless, Petrie retreats to a used bookstore to research Chinese secret societies (one can’t help but suspect this is art imitating life for Rohmer) where he bumps into Karamaneh. This is actually a brilliant touch in spite of the improbability of their meeting for, until now, Petrie has been oddly silent about the object of his affections. Perhaps recognizing that he had delayed character development for too many episodes, Rohmer has Karamaneh lead Petrie to Dr. Fu-Manchu’s current base of operations in the East End. Here, we meet her delicate and tragic younger brother, Aziz who is kept in a cataleptic trance from which only Fu-Manchu can release him using a special serum.
Rohmer has Petrie express surprising distrust of Karamaneh as he feels powerless (once again) for allowing himself to be led by a woman “whose beauty, whose charm , truly might mask the cunning of a serpent.” This uncharacteristic reticence is perhaps best explained when Petrie is faced with boyish Aziz who is his sister’s near twin with his delicate effeminate features. The difference being that Aziz is portrayed as the uncorrupted victim and not the duplicitous partner in crime like his sister. Rohmer makes a startling role reversal for the genre by having the young boy take the place of the damsel in distress with Karamaneh portrayed more as a femme fatale for the purpose of the mood that the author wishes to convey for the story. It is a curious move, but not without precedent in 1913 (witness the bizarre gender identity issues in Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s contemporaneous Fantomas).
Petrie departs Fu-Manchu’s East End headquarters with a vial of the mysterious elixir courtesy of the much-maligned Karamaneh. He tells Smith all he has seen and a police raid is planned until Smith, acting on an unexplained impulse, resolves to return to Lord Southery’s home. Smith’s motivation becomes apparent shortly as he demands Henderson, Lord Southery’s solicitor show him to the crypt where the peer’s body rests. Smith has wisely deduced that since Dr. Fu-Manchu has a catalepsy-inducing drug at his disposal, he has used it to fake Lord Southery’s death and intends to reclaim him and press him into his service (as Smith speculates has already been the fate of Stradwick’s allegedly deceased German counterpart, Von Homber). Petrie, possessing the mysterious elixir to the drug, is able to revive Lord Southery just seconds before Dr. Fu-Manchu and his servants arrive at the crypt. Fu-Manchu escapes Smith and the story ends with the promise of an exciting raid upon Fu-Manchu’s East End hideout for the following month’s installment. Rohmer has regained his pace with this story and is bringing the plot threads together with great panache. The reader is left eager to learn What Will Happen Next.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Blogging The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, Part Eight – “Andaman—Second!”

“Andaman—Second!” was the seventh installment of Sax Rohmer’s serial, Fu-Manchu first published in THE STORY-TELLER in April 1913. The story would later comprise Chapters 18-20 of the novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (re-titled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu for U.S. publication). Rohmer returned the series to its Holmesian roots by mining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” for inspiration. Conan Doyle’s case concerns stolen submarine plans taken from Cadogan West while Rohmer’s story involves stolen aero-torpedo plans taken from Norris West. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” was published in 1912, just a few months before Rohmer wrote “Andaman—Second!” and shows that Sherlock Holmes was still very much a model for the Fu-Manchu series at this early stage.

The story starts out with Dr. Petrie in the final throes of fighting his feelings for Karamaneh. He tries telling himself that slavery in the 20th Century is an impossibility, but he cannot doubt Karamaneh’s account of her tragic life of bondage and enforced servitude. Try as he might to convince himself that she is too foreign to his values and culture, that she has been jaded and corrupted by her life and experiences, he cannot deny his heart. The reader’s expectation at this point is that Rohmer will bring the two lovers together once Petrie wins her freedom from Dr. Fu-Manchu. Of course, it is worth remembering that Rohmer delights in breaking with tradition. Happy Endings are never assured in his fiction.

Following this introspective beginning, Rohmer moves the plot into high gear by having Nayland Smith conduct Petrie to a Limehouse storefront which is a literal front for an Oriental nightclub. Rohmer’s prose is rushed at this point and it takes a bit for the reader to learn that Smith and Petrie are disguised as Turks complete with fez and make-up to darken Petrie’s complexion. The setting is enjoyable, although under-written, as Rohmer gives us an enticing conglomeration of foreign cultures. Petrie marvels at Smith’s ability to speak dozens of foreign languages like a native and he is apparently convincing enough to gain entry to the nightclub with its African, Arab, Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, and Chinese clientele. No sooner are our heroes seated at a table, then they spy Karamaneh and the chase is on with only Karamaneh’s voice giving a cryptic warning of “Andaman—Second” to Petrie to serve as a clue.

Smith and Inspector Weymouth are both quite slow to puzzle out what “Andaman—Second” may refer to, but they can be forgiven for the theft of Norris West’s aero-torpedo plans by Chinese agents that same night is reason enough to serve as a distraction. The story quickly shifts to West’s hotel room where the aviator is found heavily drugged with hashish. Rohmer indulges some of his finest psychotropic fantasies here by having West reveal he gave away the combination to the safe where the plans were kept to his Chinese visitors and saw the words appear before his face as if they were written in the air. As he did previously with DeQuincey’s Confessions of an Opium-Eater, Rohmer is quick to have his characters cite authors and works to lend credence to his fanciful claims – in this instance he has Smith and Petrie discuss Bayard Taylor’s The Land of the Saracen and Moreau’s Hashish Hallucinations to confirm Norris West’s incredible experiences under the influence of the drug.

Somewhere along the way the truth has dawned on Smith and he reveals to Petrie that the Andaman is a ship of the Oriental Navigation Company about to leave London en route to China. The race is on to the docks. If the veteran mystery reader expects an unmasking and retrieval of the stolen aero-torpedo plans, Rohmer is determined to confound their expectations. Smith and Petrie board the ship and prepare to search the passengers. They turn up nothing. As the Andaman sets sail, they hear the disembodied voice of Dr. Fu-Manchu remark, “Another victory for China, Mr. Smith.” Much like the disembodied warning from an unseen Karamaneh of “Andaman—Second!” at the outset of the story, this similar ending coupled with Norris West’s peculiar viewing of his own words emerging from his mouth and written in the air in front of him, leaves the reader with a greater sense of fantasy and the Music Hall tradition of theatrical Oriental magicians than rational criminal investigations.

The story is diverting enough, but Rohmer has little here to advance the plot. “Andaman—Second!” stands as a marking time story and little else. The reader is left eager to reach a resolution with Fu-Manchu dead or behind bars and Karamaneh united with Dr. Petrie at last. American and British readers in 1913 had every reason to expect a traditional ending to the serial. They were also bound to have their expectations shattered by an ambitious young thriller writer determined to make a name for himself with his first published novel.