Reading for CIA Agents

“Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race….”

So begins The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. For “white race,” these days we might say “the West,” but the mis­sion of Burmese commissioner Nayland Smith, hero of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu novels, is not so very dis­similar from that of the field officers of our own FBI, CIA, and other alphabet-soup military, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies. Nayland Smith is an intrepid Englishman and imperial civil servant charged with rooting out a foreign terrorist and his network of conspiratorial criminality.

Given the breadth, depth, and importance of America’s own war against terror, one can only hope that along with brushing up on their Arabic and other Eastern tongues, America’s intelligence and security personnel are spending their off-duty hours devouring such British imperial “shockers.” “Shockers” was the word that John Buchan used to describe his own wonderful adventure books, but it eminently suits Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu classics.

Nothing would be more off-putting than to find that the men and women we count on for our “homeland security” merely punch their hours nine-to-five and then perch on barstools. They could—and should, of course—keep their off-duty noses buried in the Fu-Manchu books, deepening their knowledge of terrorist case studies and rousing the embers of patriotic commitment whenever they start fading. And we know that fade they must in those notorious cases that become spy scandals or more pro­saically in those individuals where a vocation of patriotic service degener­ates into bureaucratic careerism.

British adventure fiction of a hun­dred years ago is bathed in a very dif­ferent ethos—one in which the snares of financial or sexual corruption among servants of the crown is most entirely un-English; in fact, it might even be the very definition of “going native.” A frequent word to describe all that is good and upstanding is “clean,” which in this sort of fiction is a syn­onym for “English.” These books reflect a British imperial attitude in which many of its best servants marry themselves to imperial duty rather than any mere woman. Think of Cecil Rhodes, Lord Kitchener, General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon of Khartoum, T.E. Lawrence, and so on.

And think of Nayland Smith, the Sherlock Holmes—though an impetuous, sun-bronzed, imperial version—of the Fu-Manchu stories.

He rebukes his own moonstruck Dr. Watson sidekick—Dr. Petrie—with these telling words: “You are playing, not only with a pretty girl who is the favorite of a Chinese Nero, but with my life! And I object, Petrie, on purely personal grounds! …You know that she is utterly false, yet a glance or two from those dark eyes of hers can make a fool of you! A woman made a fool of me once, but I learned my lesson; you have failed to learn yours. If you are determined to go to pieces on the rock that broke up Adam, do so! But don’t involve me in the wreck, Petrie, for that might mean a yellow emperor of the world, and you know it!”

One wonders if CIA agents today use thoughts about yellow emperors of the world as chides to conscience. I certainly hope so. One also wonders if CIA agents are classically educated Christians, such as Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are (and would that we had more of those!).

Nayland Smith’s nemesis, Dr. Fu-Manchu, is a master of the villainous arts of which al-Qaeda and its related groups are but amateurish dabblers. He is an evil genius—part of a Chinese al-Qaeda known as the Si-Fan—and at his murderous call, he has everything from simple knife-armed dacoits and strangling thugs to biological agents so advanced that they are beyond the ken of Western science. But if Fu-Manchu is a human monster, he is, nevertheless, at the beginning of his fiendish career, operating in the immediate cultural aftermath of Edwardian England (King Edward VII died in 1910, and the first Fu-Manchu book—The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu—appeared in 1913). As such, he has adopted at least a trace of the English sense of honor of the period. Take, for instance, this letter that he leaves for a muscular Christian reverend whom he has tor­tured and left hospitalized: “Although, because you are a brave man, you would not betray your correspondent in China, he has been discovered. He was a mandarin, and as I cannot write the name of a traitor, I may not name him. He was executed four days ago. I salute you and pray for your speedy recovery.—FU-MANCHU”

Somehow, one cannot imagine such a letter coming from an Osama bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein. But this is the price one pays for no longer having Britain patrolling the world and teaching people how to behave—and how to send such proper follow-up notes.

The militant Arab and Muslim ter­ror groups that wish to revive the millennium-long jihad against the West that ended only with the lifting of the siege of Vienna in 1683 and subse­quent European expansion and impe­rialism, lack sufficient submersion in Western values to be so polite. (Though, in the Fu-Manchu books, the traditional Englishman’s respect for Islam shows through—in fact, the romantic light of Dr. Petrie’s heart is a Muslim.)

I fear that CIA and FBI agents who pursue our present enemies should not expect friendly notes saying, “Well fought” or “Well chased.” Nor, as we know all too well, should they expect acts of terror whose targets are indi­vidually defined combatants, rather than senseless slaughter of innocents. Honor is not to be found among our enemies these days.

The terrorists that our intelligence, law enforcement, and military services are called to deal with today are far uglier, conscienceless, and remorseless than the “Yellow Peril” that kept Nayland Smith up at night. But that is only all the more reason why, in their off hours, a little light vocational reading in the Fu-Manchu books can be a source of relief, as well as of instruction for men and women of the CIA, FBI, DIA, and all the rest. Oh for the days when even Eastern villains shared Edwardian values.

  • H. W. Crocker III

    ]H. W. Crocker III is a novelist and historian. He is the author most recently of the comic novel Armstrong (Regnery, 2018). Its sequel, Armstrong Rides Again! (Regnery, 2021), is forthcoming.

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