Pyramid Books

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

The Insidious Fu ManchuI finished reading The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu today – just over 100 years since it was published in 1913.  I have been trying (for no reason other than pure whim) to bulk out my collection of detective/science fiction pulp novels.  This includes focusing on 1900 -1940 paperbacks and such.  Naturally, some items are of higher quality than others.  However, among the most famous are the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (the penname of Arthur Henry Ward 1883 – 1959).

The first thing to discuss is the overwhelming xenophobia present in the novel.  There is no ignoring it.  I do not care to dwell on it too much.  I mean, this is hardly an isolated incident in history.  Yellow Peril / Yellow Terror is a pretty common fear theme in the early 1900s especially.  Historians can connect this sort of mindset with the events of the world wars and with the sociological milieu of Europe.  However, this is a novel review – not a discussion on history and racism.

I read the 1965 Pyramid edition of the novel.  I have the first three in the Fu Manchu series in these Pyramid printings. Fu Manchu – or some concept thereof – is rather pervasive in our contemporary society.  However, I’d wager most people have neither read the novels or seen the movies.  In fact, I am not so sure they know such things exist.  After all, I suspect many people think it is just a cool name for facial hair. Or, perhaps, a slightly off-color nickname for a Chinese person.  In any case, I doubt people connect the term “Fu Manchu” with this novel.

I have to say that I am not giving the novel a high rating – but not because it contains xenophobia.  And not because it seems dated or whatever else.  Frankly, the two star rating I am giving it is because it is not very likeable.  Simply put.

The two main characters are hideous.  I mean, they are just ridiculous and hideous.  Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are obvious imitations of Sherlock and Watson. But not good imitations.  I mean, these two suck.  Sherlock and Watson are swift, agile, witty, sharp, clever… whereas Smith and Petrie are pathetic and fail constantly.  Rohmer gives Smith some “idiosyncrasies” like tugging on his earlobe and pacing whenever he is stressed.  Smith also smokes a pipe (albeit rather unsuccessfully).  Petrie is also the one who is narrating the story; but he tells us a repetitive story, reiterating constantly some main points.  For example, Fu Manchu is uncanny, the girl-slave is beyond meta supra-beautiful, etc.

The first few chapters are actually kind of difficult to figure out.  I was somewhat lost in them – mainly because I felt they were just not well written.  Eventually, though, the storyline evens out a bit and makes more sense.  Then the reader just follows along as again and again our Smith and Dr. Petrie fail at everything.  They are pathetic.

Good things:  Rohmer’s descriptions of the opium dens are creepy and intense.  I think Rohmer probably went to some such places for “research.”  This is important to note because whenever else in reading (Cp. Metropolis, etc.) I come across depictions of opium dens, it is Rohmer’s description that I imagine.  If you are interested in this underworld of drugs, you may be interested in these sections.  Also:  Rohmer does a good job of making sure the reader is scared and disgusted by the villain.  He gives us enough to let us know Fu Manchu is a very intelligent, scary villain – but without developing a familiarity that would take the mystery away.

Overall, there is no sense in reading this for a great detective/mystery.  This is truly a piece of its time and it shows.  I’m glad I read it – I can now discourse on Fu Manchu and find Fu Manchu spin-offs and copycat derivatives in all sorts of media.

2 stars

The Stainless Steel Rat

The SSRI finished reading The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison and was really happy for having done so.  This is a really fun book.  It was first published in 1961. My copy is published by Pyramid Books. I looked this up: Pyramid Books is now known as Jove Books, which is a paperback publishing company, founded in 1949 by Almat Magazine Publishers.  Jove is actually part of the Penguin Group of publishers. Anyway, this is the first in the Stainless Steel Rat series by Harrison.

There are a lot of reasons to love this novel.  It’s written in the first person with a style and tone that makes the main character always seem as if instead of lecturing you, he’s having a casual conversation with you.  Harrison has a light-hearted, witty, and fluid writing style in this novel that makes the pages turn quickly.  The novel starts in media res with a robotic police officer arresting Jim DiGriz, who is in the middle of a robbery.  Immediately, the reader finds a polished crook who has plenty of workable philosophical ideas on society and who, while committing crimes, avoids physically harming others. Right away in chapter two, on page 12, we learn why Jim DiGriz considers himself a “stainless steel rat.”

Wikipedia has this to say about Jim DiGriz, the charming anti-hero of this novel:

“He is charming and quick-witted, a master of disguise and martial arts, an accomplished bank robber, an expert on breaking and entering, and (perhaps most usefully) a skilled liar. A master of self-rationalization, the Rat frequently justifies his crimes by arguing that he is providing society with entertainment; and besides which, he only steals from institutions which have insurance coverage.”

In any case, after attempting another heist, DiGriz is actually caught and is maneuvered into working for the government. He joins the Special Corps, which is the elite law-enforcement and spy agency led by the former greatest crook in the Galaxy, Harold P. Inskipp (a.k.a. Inskipp the Uncatchable).  DiGriz discovers that the organization is composed mostly of ex-criminals like himself, and he develops a unique friend/enemy relationship with Inskipp.

The rest of the novel involves some of DiGriz’s adventures chasing Angelina – on behalf of the Special Corps.  He finds himself very attracted to her, but she is an inveterate criminal on par with DiGriz’s skills.  Indeed, she always seems to be several steps ahead of DiGriz, which both frustrates and amuses him.  The story is interesting and is something like reading Ocean’s 11 or The Italian Job, but in space with a bit of a fuzzy line between what a criminal is and what a hero is.

In chapter 6, DiGriz says something about sending a psigram about a theft.  I like this concept of psigram – and I feel it has had a lot of derivatives since Harrison wrote it.  For example, I immediately thought of the psykers in Warhammer 40k.  This is a pretty neat little concept just tossed in the middle of the overall plot, but it’s a nice touch for a science fiction adventure story.  I enjoyed the book and it was a fast read throughout, although the chapters taking place in Freibur did slow down a bit.  Freibur is a planet on which DiGriz has caught up with Angelina and is trying to arrest her, so he involves himself in her own plot of trying to cause a revolution on the planet.  These chapters were good, but I do feel they went on a bit too long.  At the end of this section, I was somewhat disappointed with what I thought the ending/resolution was – until the last page!  I read the last page and grinned at my paperback copy because the last few paragraphs fix everything and make me desperate to read the next in the series.

4 stars