by CAY VAN ASH
Many who have studied the thirteen books and four shorter works describing the history of Fu Manchu will have noticed a fair number of inconsistencies. These are principally due to a very simple cause: the record, extending over almost half a century, was compiled by many narrators---Dr. Petrie, Shan Greville, Alan Sterling, Bart Kerrigan, and others unnamed---not all of whom were in the same position to observe and report. Consequently, some serious difficulties have arisen as to the dating of the earlier episodes, and even the respective ages of the principals involved. Some attempt at clarification seems called for.
Despite later mis-statements to the contrary, Dr. Fu Manchu's first mission to England began in the early Summer of 1911 and ended in the autumn. Although reports of isolated incidents did appear in the daily press, publication of Dr. Petrie's full account of the events was delayed for a year ("The Zayat Kiss" first saw print in the issue of The Story-Teller dated October 1912, on sale in September 1912.) The newspapers' silence during this period can be ascribed to Nayland Smith's extraordinary influence. As Petrie stated: "Not one-half of the truth (and nothing of the later developments) had been made public. Nayland Smith's authority was sufficient to control the Press." [The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Chapter XXVIII.] Petrie's speculations on the identity of Fu Manchu [ibid. Chapter XXIV.] make it clear that at least the final phases of his chronicle were written after the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and the proclamation of the Republic in the winter of 1911-12, but the adventures themselves took place during the months leading up to that climatic event.
Two years after his first visit Fu Manchu was back again, in the summer of 1913. His renewed activities were suspended in October, when he was shot and seriously wounded. But he was not out of action for very long. Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, who, supposing him to be dead, had set sail for Egypt, had scarcely reached there before they were hastily recalled to London, where they returned in November of the sane year
The ensuing series of incidents continued until the late Spring of 1914, with an intriguing gap of some two or three months during which nothing was recorded. Since Dr. Fu Manchu was still far from well, he may have remained inactive. There are, however, some subsequent references to notes made by Dr. Petrie, presumably concerning episodes too shocking for immediate disclosure. Perhaps one day we shall know.
Full reporting of the circumstances surrounding Fu Manchu's second campaign in England was delayed even more than had been the case with his first visit. Partly this was due once again to Nayland Smith's intervention, but of equal importance was the fact that by the Fall of 1914 Britain was embroiled in events of more immediate importance: World War I. Wartime conditions in England may also explain why Petrie's second and third chronicles of the battle against Fu Manchu appeared first in the United States. (Fu Manchu and Company, which became The Devil Doctor in book form, began publication in Collier's in November 1914, while British publication, in The New Magazine, was delayed until the following June. Collier's began the third series, The Si-Fan Mysteries, in April 1916; British publication, in The Story-Teller, began in September of that year.)
The scheme of dates summarized above may be easily cross-checked. The events described in The Trail of Fu Manchu commenced in the first days of 1934. (See the opening lines of Chapters 1 and 2 of the book.) Dr. Petrie's daughter, Fleurette, who was born a year after his marriage to Karamančh, was then eighteen years old. She had, therefore, been born in 1915.
Shan Greville is, then, clearly much in error when, in Daughter of Fu Manchu, he refers to "the death of the Chinaman Kwee ... late in 1913" and "the raid on the house in London in 1917." Yet the error is understandable. Greville himself had taken no previous part in the fight against Fu Manchu. He confesses, "The doings of this great and evil man ... had reached me merely as rumors in the midst of altogether more personal business." By this latter he means his participation in the World War of 1914-1918, and he obviously supposed the Fu Manchu campaign to have taken place concurrently. Having innocently adopted this false point of departure, he naturally attempted to make other time references correspond when reconstructing his conversations with Superintendent Weymouth and Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Smith could hardly have described Fah Lo Suee as "about seventeen in those days" and "under thirty now'---but, taking into account the precocious maturity of Oriental women, she may well have been no more than fifteen when Dr. Petrie first encountered her in 1914.
Unlike Dr. Petrie, who had been able to make notes of events while they occurred, Shan Greville had no such opportunity. His record was written from memory, nearly a year later, under canvas on the site of ancient Nineveh. No one who had taken part in the earlier Fu Manchu episodes was then present to assist him, with the exception of Sir Lionel Barton---and readers may easily imagine how much help night have been expected from him.
Illustrators and motion picture directors have added to the general confusion by mutually contradictory presentations of the chief actors in the drama. At the time when it all began, both Dr. Petrie and Nayland Smith were young men of about the sane age. Petrie had not long been established in his South London practice and had few patients on his books. The researches of Mr. David Braveman, reported it The Rohmer Review #3, assures us that Petrie was born in 1884. Consequently, he would have been twenty-eight in 1911.
Smith might have been a year or so older, but not more. He held the post of Police Commissioner in Rangoon, and it was not uncommon for men of his age to hold such positions in the British Colonial Service. Critics who, incidentally, have complained that he did little in the Sherlock Holmes style of crime detection ignore the fact that he was not a detective but an administrator. His later position as Assistant Commissioner at New Scotland Yard was likewise administrative and, together with his knighthood, a logical outcome of his previous service. Originally he had been summoned from Burma to act as a special advisor and coordinator in the Fu Manchu case, merely because chance had already furnished him with some knowledge of the Si Fan. The man officially in charge of the investigation was Inspector John Weymouth.
By far the most misleading impression given to the general reader is that of Dr. Fu Manchu himself. Smith's occasional references to him as a supernormal being of incalculable age may be taken as exaggerations born of the heat of the moment, rather than as literal truth. Nothing in the known facts supports this characterization. When Shan Greville first saw Fu Manchu, presumably in 1928 (since, in addition to his other lapses, he fails to date his own record), he judged him to be "little short of seventy", and was probably right.
According to what Nayland Smith could discover, Fu Manchu had at one time administered the province of Honan under the Empress Dowager and, in these days, this alone provokes a feeling of remote antiquity. We forget, however, that the Empress Dowager died only in November 1908.
Dr. Fu Manchu claimed to hold academic distinctions from four universities. Since he certainly did not register in that name, it is impossible to check this claim. I think it most likely that he obtained his first degree at the medical school founded by Christian missionaries in Canton, and followed this up with postgraduate work at Edinburgh, the Sorbonne, and Heidelberg. All this he could have accomplished while still in his twenties, giving him ample time for his own strange researches and Imperial government service before appearing in London, then about fifty years of age.
Possibly it was the Boxer uprising of 1900 which led to Fu Manchu's hasty retirement from office in Honan, and drove him to seek refuge in the wilds of Sinkiang. There, no doubt, he made some studies of Tibetan mysticism and first came into contact with the Si Fan, at that tine no more than a traditional organization of cut-throats and thieves. In this unpromising material he was quick to perceive the nucleus of a great pan-Asian federation by means of which the tottering Imperial throne might be rebuilt on a solid foundation. But although his intellect and personality clearly dominated the society from the outset, when Fu Manchu began his war against China's enemies in 1911 he was not yet President of the Si Fan, nor did he even hold a seat on the Council of Seven.
The collapse of all centralized authority in China, and his own failing health, caused him to abandon his projects after 1914. The Si Fan became dormant until 1928, when the ill-advised attempts of his daughter to re-activate it forced him once again to assume control, but with the greatest reluctance. In the following year, when Fu Manchu's twenty-five years of research resulted in the successful preparation of an elixir vitae, the situation was dramatically changed. Henceforth the Si Fan was to be his undisputed property---reorganized and vastly expanded to operate on a worldwide scale.
At seventy or thereabouts, Dr. Fu Manchu was less robust than many other men of his years. He had suffered much and driven himself mercilessly, so that he had looked old even in middle age. The elixir halted the process of aging and restored him to full health and vigor, but it did not otherwise rejuvenate him. He continued to look his age as of that moment when the first injection took effect, and would do so indefinitely.
When last reliably heard of in 1959, it is likely that Fu Manchu had only just reached the century mark. If the Smith letters in The Rohmer Review #12 may be taken as authentic, the Doctor has by now long passed that hurdle, and Sir Denis Nayland Smith himself is well on the way.
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Further Note on Dates:
The events narrated in Daughter of Fu Manchu can reliably be placed in the latter half of 1928, concluding in the autumn (see Chapter 10), which could be as late as November. Sir Lionel Barton's expedition to Nineveh presumably began late the following summer, and by the autumn of 1929 Shan Greville was completing his account of his meetings with Fah Lo Suee and Fu Manchu; this account was published early in 1930. Even before the first chapters appeared in print, Sir Lionel Barton had taken his niece Rima and Greville off on a further expedition to Khorassan, which led to the discovery of the El Mokanna relics and the eventual encounter with the revivified Fu Manchu. By the time the party reached Ispahan, it was again autumn; at this point, Rima made a reference to "what happened two years ago in England" (The Mask of Fu Manchu, Chapter 13). Later, when the group returned to England, Greville observed, "We had been absent from England for more than a year." (ibid., Chapter 43) References to a topcoat and to Fah Lo Suee's fur coat indicate that the final episodes of the adventure occurred in the late autumn or early winter of 1930. Greville's and Rima's wedding probably took place in November or December 1930. The preoccupation with married life easily explains why Greville's account of The Mask of Fu Manchu did not see print until well over a year later (May 1932, in Collier's).
Copyright © 1977 by Robert E. Briney
The Chronology of Fu Manchu based on this article.
Mark Scheiber's article based on an interview with Cay Van Ash.
Bibliographic details are available for Ten Years Beyond Baker Street and The Fires of Fu Manchu.
Go to The Page of Fu Manchu.