The sixth Fu Manchu book is arguably the best in the series, with the possible exception of the novel that introduces the devil-doctor. It’s definitely the first book in the series that doesn’t feel like a bunch of episodic events strung together, which may be the result of Rohmer treating his small cast of characters after the fashion of archaic Greek drama.
New viewpoint character Alan Sterling is certainly a huge improvement over the dull Shan Greville from books four and five. Though Sterling’s occupation of “roving botanist” doesn’t sound as promising as the career of roving archeaologist Greville, Sterling’s a much more decisive hero, managing to slay two of Fu Manchu’s dacoit servants, albeit with a handgun. And while Greville merely fantasizes about enacting the “Troy complex” when he first meets Doctor Petrie’s beauteous wife Karameneh, Sterling actually does manage to steal the titular “bride of Fu Manchu.”
Sterling’s flower-hunting profession is key to his involvement in the story, for he consults informally with the redoubtable Doctor Petrie, investigating a deadly new contagion in France. The contagion is of course the creation of Fu Manchu, and both Petrie and Denis Nayland Smith have been drawn to France to foil the doctor’s plans for world domination. (Petrie, incidentally, catches the disease he’s trying to cure and spends most of the novel at death’s door, though his prior discovery of a vaccine ends up nullifying Fu’s plans.) Yet Sterling is the first to make indirect contact with Fu’s fiendish plans, for in addition to menacing the world with a disease carried by hybrid flies, the doctor’s brought his prospective bride to France as well. Fleurette (French for “little flower”) charms Sterling the mment he has a meet-cute with her, even though he’s given reason to suspect that she’s the kept woman of an older master. By the magic of authorial fiat, though, Sterling crosses paths twice more with Fleurette, and his slaying of the second dacoit leads Fu Manchu to abduct the botanist.
Indeed, being a botanist is apparently the only thing that saves Sterling’s life. Fu Manchu’s French hideout is one of the first and best of all “supervillain lairs,” a massive underground laboratory devoted to diverse researches, replete with exotic plants, fearsome animals (not least a spider “as large as a grapefruit”), and a deformed, artificially-grown humanoid called a “homunculus.” Moroever, Fu Manchu has considerably upped his game in terms of servants. In the previous five books, most of Fu’s servants seem to be near-mindless assassins, and the doctor’s principle stratagem seems to be trying to find ways to foment in the East against the interests of the West. But Fu’s French laboratory is staffed with the finest scientists from East and West—some of whom are supposedly dead, and all of whom have been subjected to chemical brainwashing. The prospective plague is of course Fu’s principle threat, but he needs botanists like Sterling to help with his research, not least to improve on his elixir vitae, which keeps Fu vigorous despite his considerable age.
As in previous books, though, the master scientist outsmarts himself, this time by bringing Sterling into closer contact with Fleurette. The devil-doctor is certainly aware, in his magisterial way, of Sterling’s attempt to flirt with Fleurette, but evidently the villain assumes that once his people subject Sterling to the brainwashing, the young man will no longer pose any threat. But Fu’s rebellious daughter Fah Lo Suee doesn’t want her father to give her any siblings—particularly not a son, who would in theory supplant her—and so she makes sure that Sterling’s brainwash-chemical is compromised, and the botanist remains mentally free, albeit in captivity.
Because of this relative freedom, Sterling does unveil some of Fleurette’s mysteries, learning that she’s half-Arab and that from childhood she’s been schooled to become “the perfect woman” in terms of bearing and intellect, the better to be the mother of a new son of Fu Manchu. (Apparently Fu tried this before with the Russian mother of Fah Lo Suee, but he blames the fruit of that union on the “taint of a distant ancestor.” Whether it’s a paternal or maternal ancestor, Fu does not say.) Rohmer also tosses out the idea that Fleurette may have prophetic powers that could aid Fu Manchu in his quest for dominion, though she’s not really seen showing any such propensities. Indeed, Sterling is seen having more than his fair share of precognitive episodes, though Nayland Smith attributes these incidents—like seeing the face of Fu Manchu in a dream-reverie, long before meeting the villain face-to-face—to some sort of empathic connection between Sterling and Fleurette.
It’s not clear why the doctor, who’s willing to brainwash almost everyone in his service, does not do the same to Fleurette, so that she would feel for him such adulation that love with another man ought to be impossible. As it is, Fleurette only feels immense respect for Fu, her substitute father-figure, though Rohmer provides no scenes of character-interaction between Fu and his intended. Whatever the doctor’s reasons for not covering his bets, Sterling succeeds in winning Fleurette from her master. Surprisinigly, while Fu Manchu is willing to consign thousands to plague-death in order to reshape the world, he isn’t willing to contravene the power of love, either by killing Sterling or by belatedly brainwashing Fleurette. (He does take out some of his frustration on the traitorous Fah Lo Suee, expressing his contempt for Western chivalry as he personally flogs his daughter—which action may speak volumes about why she’s so often a thorn in his side.)
Nayland Smith belatedly enters the novel to lead police forces on the compound, but though the police rescue Sterling, Fu escapes with both Fleurette and Doctor Petrie (whose death the mastermind fakes, with the long game of making Petrie into another slave). The pursuit does lead to Fu Manchu being captured by French police, though, as in the first novel, the mastermind uses his skills of illusionism to escape and menace the world once more. Both Petrie and Fleurette are liberated, but by then Sterling has learned a further secret from Nayland Smith: that Fleurette is actually the long-lost daughter of Petrie and Karameneh.
It’s at this point that Sax Rohmer does seem to borrowing a bit from the Atreus Saga. Eighteen years ago, the Petries believed that their infant daughter had perished of illness. In truth, the medical mastery of Fu Manchu placed the child in a cataleptic state, and then allowed one of his agents to raise the girl to maturity, always with the plan that Fleurette would become Fu’s bride later.
I’ve mentioned in my review of INSIDIOUS DR FU MANCHU that Rohmer first characterizes Karameneh as someone who might be Fu’s “servant, daughter, or lover,” though only the first appellation proves literally true. Petrie manages to enact his own “Troy complex” by stealing the heart of Karameneh, and though in the second book Fu Manchu retaliates by trying to eradicate Karameneh’s memory of Petrie, love restores the former slave’s memory. Indeed, Fu’s first “rebel daughter” repays him in kind: he messes with her mind, and she shoots him in the head. After the introduction of the villain’s genuine daughter, she proves alternately obedient and rebellious to her father’s will. Fleurette is the first female character who has the potential to be “servant, daughter and lover” to Fu Manchu, and though she’s not as willful as either Karameneh or Fah Lo Suee, Rohmer does give her more wit and personality than most of his femmes fatales. Surprisingly, no one in the novel makes any comment at all upon Fu’s motives for choosing to steal the child of the Petries. The logical supposition of most similar thrillers would be that he did so for base revenge. However, over the years Rohmer built up the image of Fu Manchu as a magnanimous foe, so mere vengeance would have seemed out-of-character, even though the act of child-stealing has the same emotional impact on its victims. The author may have wanted this magnanimity in order to explain why the villain does not (for example) ever attempt Karameneh’s life for her act of rebellion. (He does kidnap Karameneh in the third book, but once he’s used her as a chess-piece against Petrie, he never bothers her again.) The next book repeats this pattern, as Book Seven shows Fu kidnapping Fleurette, not for vengeance but to use her as a pawn in his unending chess-game.