Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
In the extensive annals of published drivel, the name of Sax Rohmer stands high – or low. His real name was a somewhat less propitious one for a writer of pulp novels, Arthur Ward, and he was born and raised in Birmingham, though he lived much of his life (1866 – 1959) in New York. One may not always be able to tell a book by its cover, but one can often tell the kind of writing by a pseudonym.
Both Rohmer’s narrator and his hero, if hero is the word for supposedly the most evil man in the world if not in history, were doctors. The narrator is Dr Petrie and the hero is Dr Fu Manchu. The former is a general practitioner with a very small practice, the latter a shadowy figure of brilliant intellect who is intent upon taking over the world on behalf of China. Dr Petrie’s practice is small because he is constantly scurrying about assisting Nayland Smith, an upper-class Englishman charged by the Secret Service with frustrating the plans and plots of Dr Fu Manchu. Petrie takes notes of Smith’s activities à la Watson for later publication; indeed, so close are the parallels between Petrie and Watson, Nayland Smith and Sherlock Holmes (Nayland Smith is tall, clever, ascetic and smokes a pipe), and Dr Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty, that it is hard not to believe that Sax Rohmer did not intend his books as a spoof on Conan Doyle’s.
I regret to say, though, that Rohmer was in earnest, and he intended his books to be exciting rather than funny. But whereas Conan Doyle (a doctor) was a genius, Rohmer (a journalist) was a mediocrity, albeit one who for decades was very successful. My edition of The Devil Doctor, for example, subtitled Hitherto Unpublished Adventures in the Career of the Mysterious Dr. Fu-Manchu, was the seventeenth in as many years.
Dr Fu Manchu’s medical accomplishments were unconventional, indeed one might call him a practitioner of alternative medicine. His therapeutic armamentarium included obedient and well-trained Australian death adders, equally well-trained and obedient poisonous scorpions and centipedes, and immensely strong and malicious Ethiopian baboons. In his temporary laboratory in Museum Street, WC1, he manages to extract a gaseous anaesthetic from the common puffball. He also performs what sounds like genetic modification on various dangerous organisms that might later come in handy for him.
But though possessed not only of these weapons but of ferocious cunning and ruthlessness, his skull being so high-domed that it must contain a great brain, he seems quite unable to kill the rather hapless and bumbling Dr Petrie even when he has him in front of him, trussed up like a chicken (which he has, about every eighty pages or so). Dr Petrie always escapes at the last moment to live another, equally terrible book. For his part, Dr Petrie is unable to shoot Dr Fu Manchu even at point-blank range. It isn’t a very flattering picture of the medical profession, either from the moral or the practical aspect.
Rohmer probably influenced George Orwell, however. The idea of Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-four, in which Winston Smith faced starving rats in a cage tied to his face, was probably derived from the scene in The Devil Doctor in which Dr Fu Manchu tries to get Dr Petrie to kill Nayland Smith with a samurai sword to prevent him from being eaten alive by Fu Manchu’s starving Cantonese rats – the most ravenous in the world, according to Fu Manchu.
At the beginning of The Living Death, Dr Petrie writes:
I believe a sense of being followed is a recognised nervous disorder; but it is one I had never experienced without finding it to be based on fact.
That, of course, is what they all say.