Sax Rohmer’s The Invisible President was originally serialized in Collier’s from February 29 to May 16, 1936. It was published in book form later that year by Cassell in the UK and Doubleday in the US under the title President Fu Manchu. The novel is the first in the series to fictionalize real events with characters based on familiar figures in the US in the 1930s, such as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. More than one critic has noted the story may have influenced the classic Cold War conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
The key to tracking down Fu Manchu comes from the most unlikely of sources. It is Robbie Adair, Moya’s four-year old son, who mentions to Mark Hepburn about the mad man who lives at the Stratton Building, the high-rise across the street from Robbie’s apartment, who makes sculptures of a bust and hurls them down to the street below. Robbie also mentions “Yellow Uncle” who is kind to him and gave him his own auto for his birthday. Moya dismissed the stories as a little boy’s imagination, but Hepburn realizes the auto is in fact a toy car and “Yellow Uncle” is very real. The mad man Robbie sees is Professor Morgenstahl, a brilliant German scientist believed dead, who is now a slave to the Si-Fan and installed at the Stratton Building. During his free hours each day, he sculpts a bust of Fu Manchu and hurls it to the pavement below in impotent rage.
After the FBI tears apart the abandoned Chinatown base and is unable to find any clues, Sir Denis agrees to investigate the Stratton Building with Hepburn. They stumble upon Fu Manchu’s office on the top floor, only to find they have walked into a trap. Fu Manchu speaks to them by radio, paying Smith his final respects. There is an electrical charge in the center of the room and Smith and Hepburn are trapped on the top floor of the high rise with an explosion imminent.
It is a wonderful cliffhanger which Rohmer sadly squanders by having the next chapter begin after the fact with Smith noting he and Hepburn managed to scale down the outside of the tower by wire just before the explosion devastated the top floor of the Stratton Building. The two of them meet with Abbot Donegal, who agrees to reveal information on his next radio broadcast guaranteed to bring down Paul Salvaletti. Interestingly, Fr. Donegal claims to have new information that he does not share with Smith and Hepburn.
Mark pays a visit the next day to Moya Adair, only to learn that Robbie has taken ill with diphtheria. Mark returns to Robbie’s apartment with her, despite knowing that doing so puts him in Fu Manchu’s power. The attending physician is incompetent. It is clear to Hepburn and the attending nurse that Robbie is near death. Unexpectedly, Fu Manchu enters the room and examines the patient. He proceeds to operate on Robbie without anesthesia. Hepburn assists him and is left in awe at Fu Manchu’s brilliance as Robbie is brought back from the brink of death in a tense and realistic operating scene.
Nayland Smith leads the FBI in a raid on Robbie’s apartment complex and arrests Fu Manchu. Hepburn informs Sir Denis that Fu Manchu just saved Robbie Adair’s life. Fu Manchu agrees to go quietly and just as he is about to step into the elevator with Smith and a waiting guard, he requests permission to put on an overcoat because of the chill. Sir Denis agrees and Fu Manchu opens a closet and begins putting on the coat, when he steps inside and seemingly vanishes into thin air. Smith realizes they have fallen for the age old magician’s trick of a false cabinet. Knowing Fu Manchu has escaped custody, Sir Denis fears Abbot Donegal will be assassinated before his fateful broadcast.
The ending comes at a breakneck pace. Abbot Donegal begins his radio broadcast, with Smith and Hepburn at his side, when a plane buzzes the Tower of the Holy Thorn and fires a missile into the building. Sir Denis pulls the priest to the floor just as the explosion devastates the studio. Miraculously, one microphone is left intact. Abbot Donegal and his recording engineers make a hasty recovery and take to the airwaves after a delay.
The priest reveals the shocking truth behind Paul Salvaletti’s background (something that will make many contemporary recall the controversial claims of birthers 80 years later). Salvaletti is a defrocked Italian priest who is secretly married while he publicly romances Lola Dumas. Fr. Donegal goes on to reveal that Fu Manchu is the power behind Salvaletti and the millions he has used to fund him is backed by gold he manufactured in his alchemical experiments (a nice continuity reference to the preceding book in the series).
The American people are stunned by these revelations. A shocked Lola Dumas eventually traces Salvaletti to the apartment, where he has sought refuge with his wife in the aftermath of the scandal revealed by Abbot Donegal. She finds the couple dead in their bed with red spots all over their corpses. Gasping, Lola realizes the tiny spiders have reached her as well. Her dying words are a cryptic reference to “the Scarlet Brides” that the reader understands while the authorities are left puzzled.
Mark Hepburn proposes to Moya Adair and looks forward to raising Robbie as his stepson, now that they are freed from Fu Manchu’s control. Meantime, Sir Denis tracks Fu Manchu making his escape by boat near the Canadian border. A high speed chase ensues with Fu Manchu’s boat going over Niagara Falls, where it is dashed to pieces on the rocks below. As readers have come to expect, no bodies are recovered the next morning, although Smith remains hopeful that Fu Manchu has finally met his end in a watery grave.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and 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, The Triumph of Fu Manchu, and a hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com