Sax Rohmer’s The Trail of Fu Manchu was originally serialized in Collier’s from April 28 to July 14, 1934. It was published in book form later that year by Cassell in the UK and Doubleday in the US. The book marked the first time Rohmer employed third person narrative in the series and dispensed with the first person narrative voice modeled on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The results dilute what would otherwise have been a stronger novel that saw the series return to its roots.
Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Alan Sterling, and Chief Inspector Gallaho follow Fah lo Suee from Sam Pak’s Limehouse opium den to the Ambassador’s Club, where the daughter of Fu Manchu has a rendezvous with Sir Bertram Morgan. The reader learns in short order that Fah lo Suee met Sir Bertram three years ago in Cairo and so has retained her old identity of Madame Ingomar. The old financier has fallen madly in love with the seductive Eurasian beauty. Sir Denis and company follow their car to Rowan House in Surrey, the former residence of Sir Lionel Barton, where Madame Ingomar’s father now resides. Once again, Rohmer refers back to the first book in the series, for it was at Rowan House where Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie first encountered Sir Lionel Barton.
Sir Bertram Morgan arrives at Rowan House and is introduced to Dr. Fu Manchu, posing as the Marquis Chang Hu, who informs Morgan that he has mastered the secret of alchemy and is able to transmute base metal into gold. Sir Bertram is allowed to examine a gold ingot as proof of his claims. Bewitched by the wonders before him, Sir Bertram forgets his anger at Madame Ingomar’s father for having whipped his daughter so cruelly as to have left her back permanently scarred.
Sir Denis quickly organizes plans for a police raid on Rowan House. The weak link is, as always, the love-besotted hero. This is where the shift from first person narrator to third person narrative voice really works against the story, for without being able to convincingly build Sterling’s emotions for the reader over the course of several chapters, his decision to disregard Smith’s orders and break into Rowan House in an effort to single-handedly rescue Fleurette Petrie seems both foolish and irrational.
Sir Denis and Inspector Gallaho come upon Sir Bertram on the grounds of Rowan House. The financier is startled to learn that his driver has abandoned him. The police raid proceeds and Rowan House is discovered to be deserted. A constable witnessed a small party leaving in Sir Bertram’s car carrying an ill man who was unable to walk. Smith realizes that not only have Fu Manchu and Fah lo Suee escaped, but they have taken Sterling with them.
Sterling recovers consciousness to find himself at an unknown location in the presence of Dr. Fu Manchu. Just as Rohmer had Fah lo Suee display telepathic abilities to Sir Bertram Morgan, so her father demonstrates telepathic abilities to Alan Sterling. The Devil Doctor also assures Sterling he is a master of the martial arts and that Sterling would be foolish to attempt to attack him. Fu Manchu credits both his physical and mental prowess to his years of training at the monastery of Rache Churan. This is a new development for the character and one that Rohmer did not continue to exploit.
Sterling is sent to the boiler room to join the laborers stoking the enormous furnace. He is horrified to learn that Fu Manchu is incinerating human bodies in his furnace for fuel. In a ridiculous bit of contrivance, Sterling meets an old friend from Uganda, Ali, who now works as a houseboy for Fu Manchu. Ali brings Sterling paper and a pencil and has him write a letter for help promising to deliver it. Ali posts the hastily-written note to Sir Denis Nayland Smith care of Chief Inspector Gallaho at Scotland Yard. Sterling’s reference to Fu Manchu in Limehouse with a huge furnace recalls Sir Denis’s witness of the strange blue light burning above Sam Pak’s opium den. This really is unnecessary, as a raid on Sam Pak’s following Fu Manchu’s escape from Rowan House would have been the obvious move even without the coincidental meeting with Ali.
Sir Denis and Gallaho once again infiltrate Sam Pak’s, disguised as sailors, while the police surround the opium den for their raid. Fah lo Suee, disguised as a hunchback server at the bar (nearly identical to the disguise employed by Karamaneh at John Ki’s opium den in the first book), recognizes Sir Denis in spite of his costume and pleads with him to take her away from her father if she will spare Smith’s life. Sir Denis reluctantly agrees to trust her. Just then, Sam Pak reveals that everyone inside the opium den is aware that Sir Denis and Gallaho are present. Dr. Fu Manchu makes an unexpected entrance and despite his daughter pleading that Sam Pak’s place is surrounded by police, Fu Manchu orders that Smith and Gallaho be taken below to the boiler room as we end on a rather startling cliffhanger until next week’s penultimate installment.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). It was followed by a sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). Next up is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com