"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
THE INSIDIOUS DR. FU-MANCHU. Yeah, that's the one. Brilliant racist pulp adventure, the kind of thing that makes every Asian actor in Hollywood grit his teeth and look around for a baseball bat -- not only did it roll with the stereotype of the cunning, cruel, torture-happy Chinese, but in the movies Fu Manchu was inevitably played by a white guy! Talk about no way to win.
We tend to focus on the social aspect of the stories, the racial and political stuff, but one thing that's not often mentioned is the extent to which the Fu Manchu stories (the ones I've read, anyway) are driven by gruesome, horrible death. They're really quite a lot like slasher movies: you're supposed to identify with the valiant heroes defending the white race, but the audience is there for Fu Manchu, because he keeps making really great kills. Example: in the first book, bodies -- one a detective investigating Fu-Manchu, one a Fu Manchu henchman -- are turning up in the river, drowned, with mutilated hands. Nobody knows what's up till later, when Dr. Petrie, the Watson figure in the stories, gets dumped into the river through a trapdoor in Fu Manchu's headquarters. He sees a ladder leading up, but the ladder is broken, and the remaining rungs are out of reach. There's a beam in just the right spot to get him onto the ladder, so he goes to lunge for it -- and Nayland Smith, the hero, screams at him to stop. Because Fu Manchu has planned for just such a reaction. You hit the drink, you look for a way out, this beam offers a way to a ladder, so you jump up and grab the beam -- WHICH HAS RAZOR-SHARP SWORD BLADES EMBEDDED IN THE TOP SIDE TO SLICE YOUR FINGERS OFF.
And the stories are full of stuff like that. Ostensibly, Fu Manchu is about laying groundwork for the Chinese awakening, but he doesn't actually do much of that because he's really all about brilliant and horrifying ways to kill and maim people. The series essentially resembles a really racist version of SAW.
Another interesting thing is the contrast between the villain and the hero. Fu Manchu is gloating and cackling on occasion, but a lot of the time he's basically just the smartest motherfucker on the planet, especially when it comes to poisons. He's brilliant, competent, urbane, and a very mellow conversationalist when you catch him out of "demonic supervillain" mode. By contrast, this is our hero, Nayland Smith:
"As to his mission among men. Why did M. Jules Furneaux fall dead in a Paris opera house? Because of heart failure? No! Because his last speech had shown that he held the key to the secret of Tongking. What became of the Grand Duke Stanislaus? Elopement? Suicide? Nothing of the kind. He alone was fully alive to Russia's growing peril. He alone knew the truth about Mongolia. Why was Sir Crichton Davey murdered? Because, had the work he was engaged upon ever seen the light it would have shown him to be the only living Englishman who understood the importance of the Tibetan frontiers. I say to you solemnly, Petrie, that these are but a few. Is there a man who would arouse the West to a sense of the awakening of the East, who would teach the deaf to hear, the blind to see, that the millions only await their leader? He will die. And this is only one phase of the devilish campaign. The others I can merely surmise."
Nayland Smith is *batshit insane.* He's an obsessive, paranoid conspiracy theorist, seeing Fu Manchu everywhere and in everything. Smith speaks in rambling sentences, uses lots of exclamation points, connects everything to Fu Manchu, is highly manic -- he really comes off like a guy out of his gourd on cocaine. One of Fu Manchu's early victims is mentioned in passing to be addicted to cocaine; if I were making a movie adaptation, I'd put in a bit of business where Smith swipes the dude's stash.
He and Fu Manchu make a very interesting pair. I don't think anybody would make a film adaptation today, simply because of the nature of the property, but you could do some interesting stuff with that dynamic. If it were me, I'd make heavy use of the gimmick that Nayland Smith is batshit insane, and possibly is so successful at countering Fu Manchu *because* he is batshit insane. Meanwhile, Fu Manchu is ruthless, diabolical, and driven in his goals -- but he definitely is not batshit insane. They're driven, on opposite sides; but Fu Manchu knows *exactly* what he's doing at all times, while Nayland Smith is the crazy bulldog of the British Empire.
...you know, it could actually work as a comedy, or a satire of itself.