Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kâramanèh: an uncommon creature

From time to time here on the blog and in real life, I bring up author Sax Rohmer; when I do start to speak of him, I often open with an apologetic statement. There was a time when I was very defensive about Rohmer, feeling he was judged a racist by modern critics strictly for his Fu Manchu novels, which I had found weren't as bad as their reputation suggested. However, the more I've read of Rohmer's non-Fu Manchu career, the more...objectionable material I've encountered.

Apologetics aside, I'd like to speak a bit about why exactly I became a staunch Rohmer supporter; I can chalk it up to one of his Fu Manchu creations, the slave girl Kâramanèh.

Kâramanèh was introduced in the first novel (the Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu or the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, depending on your edition), as narrated by the character of Dr. Petrie:

I thought that I never had seen a face so seductively lovely nor of so unusual a type. With the skin of perfect blonde, she had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole's, which, together with her full red lips, told me that this beautiful stranger, whose touch had so startled me, was not a child of our northern shores.

By the time Kâramanèh has been introduced, we've yet to meet her master, Fu Manchu, nor even heard the famous "brow like Shakespeare..." description Petrie's friend Nayland Smith relates. Petrie is quite taken with Kâramanèh and it's mutual as she winds up saving he and Smith's lives a few times. In one encounter, Petrie begins to realize just how strange her loyalty to Fu Manchu is:

"But if you will carry me off" - she clutched me nervously - "so that I am helpless, lock me up so that I cannot escape, beat me, if you like, I will tell you all I do know. While he is my master I will never betray him. Tear me from him - by force, do you understand, by force, and my lips will be sealed no longer. Ah! but you do not understand, with your 'proper authorities' - your police. Police! Ah, I have said enough."

Kâramanèh's terms are so startling to Petrie that he repeatedly lets her out of his grasp. It's a good thing he did, because being on the inside of Fu Manchu's operation, she's in a perfect position to save him! At one point, Petrie and Smith are chased through darkened streets by four of Fu Manchu's Dacoit assassins, but Kâramanèh comes to their rescue - executing the Dacoits herself with a revolver! For a piece of 1913 fiction, Kâramanèh is a pretty formidable woman and, against the expectations of the times, it's the men who are in distress and need to be rescued!

But who is Kâramanèh? And why does she remain with Fu Manchu? It seems she's from Egypt and a Bedouin...

"You may call me Kâramanèh," she said. "As Kâramanèh I was sold to Dr. Fu-Manchu, and my brother also he purchased. We were cheap at the price he paid." She laughed shortly, wildly.

"But he has spent a lot of money to educate me. My brother is all that is left to me in the world to love, and he is in the power of Dr. Fu-Manchu. You understand? It is upon him the blow will fall."

Kâramanèh's brother Aziz is being kept alive through a serum which only Fu Manchu can supply. Thankfully, Petrie is a doctor and, guided by Kâramanèh, eventually steals both Aziz and the serum and finds a way to set Aziz free. The first book ends with Fu Manchu seemingly dead and Kâramanèh reunited with Aziz, setting home to Egypt, leaving a heartbroken Petrie behind.

Much changes in the second book from 1916 (either the Devil Doctor or the Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, take your pick). Petrie and Smith quickly learn Fu Manchu is still alive and still bent on destruction. To their considerable surprise, Kâramanèh is back - and in Fu Manchu's thrall! And she has no idea who Petrie is! We eventually learn Kâramanèh has been brainwashed back into Fu Manchu's service. This brainwashed version of Kâramanèh shows no consideration for Smith & Petrie, depriving them of a valued resource and generally throwing Petrie off his game. However, the brainwashing isn't permanent and it's a good thing since by the end of the novel, Smith & Petrie are in Fu Manchu's clutches, with Smith in a death trap so terrible the Devil Doctor has given Petrie the opportunity to kill his friend to spare his suffering. As Fu Manchu begins to unleash rats to gnaw Smith to death, Kâramanèh enters the scene!

She looked, not at the tortured man, not at me, but fully at Dr. Fu-Manchu. One hand clutched the trembling draperies; now she suddenly raised the other, so that the jewels on her white arm glittered in the light of the lamp above the door. She held my Browning pistol! Fu-Manchu sprang upright, inhaling sibilantly, as Kâramanèh pointed the pistol point blank at his high skull and fired...

Isn't that amazing? Fu Manchu's first "definitive" death comes at the hands of a woman who puts a bullet in his skull! It's certainly a well-earned triumph for Kâramanèh after being a brainwashed thrall for the rest of the novel. The book ends happily with Petrie, Kâramanèh (and Aziz) together again.

Unfortunately, in some ways this was the last we saw of Kâramanèh. She reappeared in 1917's the Hand of Fu Manchu/Si-Fan Mysteries, but had barely any dialogue, spending almost the entire novel as Fu Manchu's prisoner. The fourth novel didn't arrive until 1931 and by then Rohmer had begun changing the formula (Fu Manchu is barely in the 4th novel!). Petrie was retired from the series and the narrator duties fell to other characters (until Rohmer finally adopted the third person narrator). Petrie and Kâramanèh were married during the publishing gap and their daughter, Fleurette, became the subject of two novels: the Bride of Fu Manchu (1933) and the Trail of Fu Manchu (1934). In those books, Fu Manchu tries to make Fleurette his bride (which was pretty skeevy of him), even threatening to kill Fleurette if he can't have her; it's finally Petrie who bargains for her life by saving Fu's and with that Petrie is forever removed from the narrative as Fu gives his word to never trouble him or his family again.

Personally, I wish the Kâramanèh from the first two novels had played a larger role in those two latter books. Instead of making Fleurette's peril a matter for either her lover (Alan Sterling) or her father. Man alive, I would have really enjoyed reading about a Kâramanèh who plays the part of a tigress, hunting Fu Manchu down and thrashing him until he vows to leave her cub alone.

Because she played such a prominent role in the early novels, Kâramanèh has been well-represented in every media. There were Fu Manchu serials in 1923 & 1924; Kâramanèh was played by Joan Clarkson in the former, Dorina Shirley in the latter.

In 1931 a Fu Manchu comic strip began by adapting the first novel, thus dramatizing a great deal of Kâramanèh's story.

A 1932 Fu Manchu radio program featured Sunda Loe and Charlotte Manson as Kâramanèh; in 1939, the terrific serial show the Shadow of Fu Manchu featured Paula Winslowe as Kâramanèh, again adapting the first two novels. This latter radio program was my introduction to the Fu Manchu universe, sparking off an obsession which has lasted me some 15 years.

The 1956 television program the Adventures of Fu Manchu cast Laurette Luez as Kâramanèh; perhaps one of these days I'll watch the show.

Marvel's Master of Kung Fu series made extensive use of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith and Fah Lo Suee, with occasional use of Dr. Petrie; issues #83-87 included appearances by Kâramanèh, revealed to have been kept eternally young by Fu's Elixir Vitae, while Petrie had continued to age; Kâramanèh couldn't bear to be reunited with Petrie, despite her love for him. These stories by Doug Moench & Mike Zeck showed Kâramanèh in fine form, once again coming to Nayland's rescue.

If there had been no Kâramanèh in Rohmer's stories, I wonder if I'd bother thinking about them today? There are certainly some fine adventure tales in Rohmer's fiction - particularly his earlier fiction - but nothing especially remarkable. As with so much of the genre fiction I enjoy, it's the emotions of the characters which draw me in and the genuine relationship which develops between Petrie and Kâramanèh was the heart of the program; Nayland Smith, whom most consider the proper protagonist of the series (he's the only character to appear alongside Fu throughout), is rather dull; he often berates Petrie's feelings for Kâramanèh, even after all she had done to save both their skins. I feel Petrie's faith in her - and how she repeatedly came through for them - is to Rohmer's credit. I'm not going to claim he was a champion of civil rights, but for a man of his time and means, Rohmer wrote a terrific heroine.


Randy Attwood said...

Loved this post. Just encountering it. I discovered the Fu Manchu series when I was in high school in a small Kansas town where our source of contemporary literature was the local drug store. I knew which day the salesman brought in new titles and grabbed science fiction and thus discovered Philip K. Dick. I also grabbed any new James Bond novel that popped up. And I grabbed any Fu Manchu novel at first sight. Now retired, I seem to be having a second childhood and rereading my Fu Manchu novels (still the paperbacks I bought in high school!) Sax Rohmer certainly influenced my own writing and plotting. And, yes, Karamaneh entranced me. Had to played a part when I was a student in Perugia, Italy and into the large classroom walked an oriental beauty with long black hair. That Japanese lady is still my wife these almost 50 years later.

Michael Hoskin said...


Thank you sharing that, I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Fu Manchu may not be found on drug store racks these days, but with the recent reprints he is at least easily available from online dealers!