“Zarmi of the Joy Shop” was the second installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on May 13, 1916 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 5 – 9 of the third Fu-Manchu novel, The Si-Fan Mysteries first published in 1917 by Cassell in the UK and by McBride & Nast in the US under the variant title, The Hand of Fu Manchu. The US book title marks the first time that the hyphen was dropped from the character’s name, although it was retained within the text.
“Zarmi of the Joy Shop” gets off to a cracking start with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie bringing the purloined brass box belonging to the Si-Fan to Inspector Weymouth’s office. The Inspector introduces them to Detective Sergeant Fletcher who patrols Limehouse. Fletcher tells them of John Ki’s Joy Shop, a gambling house of ill repute which has recently had two new arrivals: a beautiful Eurasian woman called Zarmi and a mysterious crippled man who walks on crutches who has excited much interest among the gambling house’s denizens. Weymouth associated Smith and Petrie’s mysterious ‘man with a limp” with Fletcher’s mysterious cripple. Zarmi has recently approached Fletcher, who was working undercover, to find another “big strong feller” to help her with a job. Smith agrees to accompany Fletcher to the Joy Shop in disguise the following night after depositing the brass box in a bank safe in the morning.
A sentimental Petrie bids Smith farewell at the New Louvre Hotel where the dreary November weather turns Petrie’s mind to Cairo where he left his fiancée, Karamaneh behind. Rohmer does a wonderful job contrasting the gray London so familiar to his readers with the paradise of sunny Cairo with its domes and minarets that recall Burton’s translation of 1001 Arabian Nights that was so close to the author’s heart. Petrie spends the day visiting a colleague, Dr. Murray, who purchased Petrie’s old practice from him after he moved to Cairo to prepare for his wedding with Karamaneh. Upon his return in the evening, he learns that Smith failed to turn up at Weymouth’s office and failed to deposit the brass box at the bank in the morning. Only then does Petrie recall that the taxi Smith stepped in was driven by an effeminate-looking dark-skinned man. He immediately deduces that Smith has fallen into the hands of the Si-Fan.
Petrie takes Smith’s place disguised a s a sailor to accompany Fletcher to the Joy Shop that night. The contrivance of having Smith abducted is necessary to retain the dramatic focus of the narrative and allow Petrie, the narrator, to fulfill the role. Weymouth meets with Inspector Ryman of the River Police to stand watch as Petrie and Fletcher enter the Joy Shop. Rather than simply recycle the visit to Singapore Charlie’s opium den from the first book, Rohmer goes one better. John Ki’s is filled with all of the smoke and picturesque color of Limehouse with its frenzied games of fan-tan and secret room for opium users. However, it is in Rohmer’s introduction of Zarmi that he achieves his masterstroke.
When Rohmer introduced Karamaneh in the first book, he created an alluring, but ultimately noble servant of Fu-Manchu who was bound to him through tragic events. Zarmi represents Rohmer’s ultimate femme fatale. While Petrie professes outrage at her barbaric dress and general lack of attire, he is also obviously as filled with lust for her as every other man in the Joy Shop where she works as both waitress and entertainer. He mentions the wicked beauty of her Eurasian features and the suspicious yellow cigarette that dangles from her lips. Most telling is the remark that she would make a fitting subject of one of the perverted modern school of painters. Part of the appeal of the first three books is watching conservative Petrie succumb time and again to the seductive charms of the pagan Orient.
Zarmi is established as the perfect bad girl with the final touch of the deadly blade she keeps in her waist belt with which she threatens Fletcher and Petrie if they fail to please her. While seated at their table, Petrie hears the sound of the mysterious “man with the limp” once more confirming Weymouth’s theory that Fletcher’s crippled man and Smith and Petrie’s limping man are one and the same. Even more shocking, Petrie realizes that the effeminate dark-skinned taxi driver who abducted Smith was Zarmi in disguise.
Zarmi has Fletcher and Petrie carry a large crate to the wharf for her. Petrie realizes to his horror that they are carrying Nayland Smith’s coffin. Zarmi displays shocking sado-masochistic tendencies for the era as she delights in burning both men’s neck with the tip of her cigarette while they struggle with their burden. As they reach the wharf, Petrie sounds the signal for Weymouth and Ryman to raid the Joy Shop. Zarmi dives into the Thames to escape, leaving Petrie with the crate, but not after first viciously stabbing Fletcher.
Petrie realizes that he passed out in the excitement and when he comes round discovers Weymouth with Nayland Smith alive and well at his side, thanks to Petrie’s efforts. Fletcher’s wounds happily do not prove fatal. Petrie learns that the heavy crate did not contain Smith’s body, but rather the treasure of the Si-Fan. Smith was discovered, bound and gagged, in the secret opium room by Weymouth during the raid on the Joy Shop. The still sealed brass box was recovered when the wizened old proprietor, John Ki was arrested dragging the box out the front door during the raid.
The story comes to a shocking end when Petrie announces that the “man with the limp” is indeed the mysterious crippled man Fletcher had heard of and Smith tells him he actually saw “the man with the limp” while he was a prisoner at the Joy Shop and that it is none other than Dr. Fu-Manchu! It is a great cliffhanger ending to the serial’s second installment that doubtless left readers eager to learn how the Devil Doctor survived in the next month’s issue.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press). A sequel, The Destiny of Fu Manchu is coming in early 2012 from Black Coat Press. Also forthcoming is a collection of short stories featuring an original Edwardian detective, The Occult Case Book of Shankar Hardwicke and an original hardboiled detective novel, Lawhead. To see additional articles by William, visit his blog at SetiSays.blogspot.com