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.
Chief Inspector Gallaho leads a police raid on Sam Pak’s opium den and begins the descent into the tunnel system below the Thames where Fu Manchu is transmuting base metal to gold in an alchemical process utilizing human bodies fed into a giant underground furnace. Alan Sterling has been sent to labor in the boiler room while Sir Denis Nayland Smith has been condemned to death alongside Fah lo Suee, Fu Manchu’s treacherous daughter. Sir Denis is puzzled why Fah lo Suee has forfeited her own life in a failed effort to save his own. He is startled when she confesses the reason is that she has loved him for many years as the man who did not fear to stand up to her father.
Sterling succumbs while working in the heat of the boiler room and awakens to find himself bound and sharing the same cell with Sir Denis and Fah lo Suee. Ali, Fu Manchu’s servant, who recognized Sterling and delivered his message to Sir Denis, is with them. They watch in horror as Fu Manchu orders Ali’s execution. He is first decapitated and then his body is thrown into the furnace.
Rohmer does an excellent job of extending this sequence. He cleverly intercuts Gallaho’s attempts to pass through a series of iron gates in the tunnel beneath the Thames. The suspense is as unbearable as the heat from the horrendous furnace. Rarely has Rohmer portrayed Fu Manchu as villainous as in these scenes. Fah lo Suee is the next to meet her fate. Since she is his daughter, Fu Manchu offers her the opportunity to drink poison rather than be decapitated. She accepts and requests that he offer the same honorable death to Sir Denis. Fu Manchu agrees. Fah lo Suee drinks the poison and dies. The others watch in stunned silence as her body is cast into the furnace.
Rohmer breaks the tension by shifting scenes rather dramatically to an exhausted Dr. Petrie arriving in London. Petrie goes to Sir Denis’s flat where Smith’s manservant, Fey, informs him that Alan Sterling is a captive of Fu Manchu and that Sir Denis is leading a police raid on Sam Pak’s opium den in Limehouse. From there, Rohmer shifts the scene to Fleurette, who awakens in a strange bedroom with no memory of what has happened since she left for Cairo with her father. She feigns being asleep when the matron enters and learns the woman has been administering hypodermic injections to keep her memory clouded. Fleurette waits for the matron to retire for the night and then successfully slips out of the house unnoticed. She is startled to realize she is near London and hurriedly grabs the last bus into the city.
Returning to the dramatic scene in the furnace room, Sir Denis’s time has come. He declines Fu Manchu’s offer of poison or even the sword, preferring to be flung into the furnace alive. As Fu Manchu’s giant Burmese executioner approaches him, Smith unexpectedly kicks the man in the groin and fells him. Fu Manchu furiously gives the order that Smith be shot. Sir Denis wastes no time and rushes to free Sterling. Fighting for their lives, they are shook by a sudden explosion as the ceiling cracks and the force of the Thames pours through.
Rohmer then shifts scenes once more, to the reader’s frustration, to Dr. Petrie’s meeting with Scotland Yard, who bring him up to speed on Smith and Gallaho’s raid on Sam Pak’s opium den. From there, we switch to Fleurette, who makes her way directly to Sir Denis’s apartment, where Fey takes her in and contacts Scotland Yard to inform them that Fleurette is safe.
The scene shifts back to Chief Inspector Gallaho, who we learn gave the order to dynamite their way through the iron doors. This action inadvertently led to breaching the ceiling of the boiler room and flooding it with the Thames. Gallaho realizes his efforts to rescue Smith and Sterling have likely resulted in their being drowned.
Rohmer finally brings the reader back to Smith and Sterling as they attempt to make their way up the crumbling stairwell to safety ahead of the rising tide. Smith realizes that Fu Manchu must have had another means of escape for no sight of them or their bodies is seen. They reach Gallaho and his men in the nick of time with Smith warning them to evacuate the area as the furnace is about to explode. A fitting cliffhanger to leave readers hanging until we look at the final installment in next week’s article.
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