When Nayland Smith, late of Burma, arrives on the London door-step of his friend (and our narrator) Dr. Petrie (no first name given), he reveals that he is in pursuit of a singularly evil man, "tall, lean, and feline, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan," who has come to spearhead the Yellow Peril conspiracy against the White race: the insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Thus begins "The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu" (known as "The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu" in its native England) the first of a series of famous and infamous tales of one of the most famous super-villains in pulp fiction. Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu is evil personified: brilliant, ruthless, with a variety of weapons in his arsenal, murdering without a second thought. He is also a fictional face on an irrational, ambiguous prejudice, the Asian hordes waiting to enslave Europe and the United States. And through a series of events, Smith and Petrie (characters deliberately reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson) thwart this sinister villain, with mixed success.
As other reviewers have noted, Rohmer's work incorporates the racism prevalent in the society of the days. Taken from that prospective, "The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu" is really nothing more than a curious artifact of a less enlightened time. The modern reader has to accept that reality, or they will never be able to appreciate the book beyond that level.
And that would be a shame, for setting aside the racism, Rohmer is a good storyteller. In particular, Rohmer has a knack for atmosphere. There's a creepiness that hangs over the novel, as Fu-Manchu employs various bits of weirdness to carry out murders, including insects, poison gases, and spooky men who climb walls and howl in the night. Rohmer knows exactly what adjective use to describe Smith and Petrie's mounting horror at each new gimmick Fu-Manchu employs, creating some legitimate tension. A scene where Smith tells Petrie to run for his life is quite gripping, perhaps because it is so easy to imagine oneself in that position. Rohmer also has a strong sense for action, as our heroes find themselves in various physical fights, gun battles, and explosions. This aspect of Rohmer's writing certainly helps, since his dialogue is of the overwrought Victorian dime novel variety (naturally), and the character development is enough to make the plot work, but no more than that. Also, while the plot is entertaining, it's episodic, so don't expect too many twists or turns, or any real sophistication in the narrative. It's simply Smith and Petrie running to this event and that event, trying to thwart Fu-Manchu.
It's hard to be objective about this book and this character. On the one hand, Fu-Manchu is a great and scary villain. On the other hand, Fu-Manchu represents the ability to be completely racist without rationality. Ultimately, I think simply enjoying the ride while acknowledging the realities of this series is the pragmatic approach. For, the first novel is an exciting, action-packed, and chilling romp of pulpiness that is completely enjoyable.