“The Queen of Hearts” was the fourth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on November 25, 1916 (after a surprising gap of five months after the last installment) and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 15 – 18 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.
“The Queen of Hearts” finally gives readers the return of the Devil Doctor they had been so eagerly awaiting since first learning Fu-Manchu still lived six months earlier. The story starts with Rohmer’s trademark abrupt beginnings (in this instance Dr. Petrie yells, “Come in!” rather than “Who’s there?” in the opening line) with the unexpected arrival of a telegram from Cairo announcing that Petrie’s fiancée, Karamaneh will reach London by boat the next day. Nayland Smith speculates that the Si-Fan is the cause of her sudden departure from Egypt. That night, Smith awakens Petrie to inform him that Sir Baldwin Fraser, the prominent surgeon has been abducted and the description of the cab driver suggests that Zarmi has resumed her earlier disguise. They are joined by Inspector Weymouth at Sir Baldwin’s home in Half-Moon Street where they interrogate the surgeon’s secretary and learn that a beautiful Eurasian (whose description matches Zarmi) had been an unexpected visitor the prior night claiming her mother needed immediate medical attention. It was only after Sir Baldwin failed to return that his secretary learned the address given was a false one.
Later that day, Petrie rushes to the dock to meet Karamaneh’s ship only to learn that she mysteriously left ship at Southampton and no sign of her has been seen since. Smith leaves a depressed Petrie to return to the Sir Baldwin Fraser investigation. Disconsolate, Petrie takes an afternoon walk and by chance spies Zarmi getting into a cab. He quickly hails a taxi and follows her. The pursuit continues on foot with Petrie unaware that he is likewise being tracked until a sack is dropped over his head and he breathes in a heavy anesthetic which renders him unconscious.
Petrie awakens with a splitting headache to find himself a captive, along with Sir Baldwin Fraser, in an operating room. Presently, Zarmi appears leading in a partially paralyzed Dr. Fu-Manchu. The Devil Doctor explains that his paralysis has been caused by the bullet lodged in his brain (fired by Karamaneh at the conclusion of the second Fu-Manchu serial). His condition will worsen and may prove fatal necessitating an immediate operation. Sir Baldwin Fraser is to remove the bullet and Dr. Petrie is to serve as anesthesiologist with one of Fu-Manchu’s servants, Li-King-Su assisting. Sir Baldwin refuses to operate until he is threatened with torture. Fu-Manchu explains that if the operation proves unsuccessful, they will be flayed alive with their bodies thrown to rats.
At that point, Fu-Manchu reveals to Petrie that he has recaptured Karamaneh. Her safety is dependent upon Petrie’s cooperation, but under no circumstances will he willingly liberate her as he considers her his rightful property. The surgery lasts many hours and Sir Baldwin is forced to rely upon Petrie as his nurse to successfully complete the operation. The two exhausted men foolishly accept a drink from Zarmi afterwards only to realize that she has drugged their drinks. Hours later, they recover consciousness at the same time and find themselves sitting on a bench in Wandsworth Common. Dr. Fu-Manchu has kept his word and granted their freedom in exchange for saving his life, but the threat posed by sparing him is far greater than what he threatened had they refused or failed. What’s worse, Petrie must live with the knowledge that his fiancée has once more been pressed into service as a slave to the Si-Fan.
The story is an entertaining one, if a trifle preposterous at times, but that is part of the charm of fiction of the era. The story’s true function is to serve as a reset button of sorts as it seeks to explain how Fu-Manchu survived being shot in the head and then quickly removes the bullet to restore him to health and proper menace again; it reintroduces Zarmi and gives her a more substantial role in assisting Fu-Manchu; and devises a plausible means of getting Karamaneh back in Fu-Manchu’s clutches. The economy of writing behind this deceptively simple pulp adventure is impressive. The gap in time between this installment and the earlier episodes in the serial can be attributed to Rohmer rethinking the direction he wished to take the storyline. The reset button having now been pressed, readers could anticipate the traditional weird menace tale of Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie opposing the superior intellect of Dr. Fu-Manchu when the fifth installment appeared in two months’ time.
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