“The Zagazig Cryptogram” was the fifth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on January 26, 1917 (two months after the fourth installment) and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 19 – 21 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 Zagazig Cryptogram” picks up two weeks after the last installment with Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie joining Inspector Weymouth at the River Depot police station to examine a corpse. A Burmese dacoit has been fished out of the Thames along the wharf where the Joy Shop sits. The coroner’s report reveals that the man was strangled rather than drowned as initially suspected. Smith spies in the Times’ personal column a mysterious message has been posted consisting of nothing more than the word Zagazig written seven times in a row. While Petrie dismisses it as nonsense, Smith points out that Zagazig is a town in Lower Egypt. He is convinced that the mysterious code and the murdered dacoit are somehow connected to the Si-Fan.
Later that day, Smith returns to his and Petrie’s room at the New Louvre Hotel. He bustles Petrie out to attend a rendezvous with Weymouth that Petrie did not recall. As they leave, they are met by Monsieur Samarkan, the hotel manager who invites them to a charitable function the following evening. Smith notes they may not be available and repeats to Petrie that they must hurry if they are going to meet Weymouth. Once outside, Smith reveals that he is convinced that the Si-Fan has infiltrated the hotel with a network of spies.
Rohmer builds Smith’s infectious paranoia masterfully as the thought of the Si-Fan having unseen eyes and ears everywhere reaches its height in a taxi cab chase through London with the Si-Fan’s agent pursuing Smith and Petrie en route to their rendezvous with Weymouth. Their destination is an abandoned house where Smith tacks a note to the door for Weymouth after first having Petrie conceal himself in the darkness. Smith continues talking to Petrie as if his companion is by his side and Petrie listens while Smith returns to the taxi and drives off. Shortly thereafter, a window is opened and the Si-Fan agent enters. Petrie is startled to see Samarkan has entered the darkened room to read the note Smith has left behind. After Samarkan’s departure, Smith re-enters the abandoned house to confirm his suspicions as to the intruder’s identity. The reader, and Petrie, realizes that the rendezvous has been an elaborate hoax on Smith’s part to convince the spy to reveal himself.
Back at their hotel room, Smith shows Petrie the Personals column and the appearance of a second mysterious message consisting of nothing but the word Zagazig written five times. Smith explains that this second code is in reference to the note he left tacked to the door instructing Weymouth to remove his men from the stakeout at the Joy Shop as Smith plans to singlehandedly infiltrate the Joy Shop the following Monday. Smith relates a story the reader was unaware of that after having placed a phone call from the New Louvre to arrange a meeting with Weymouth; the first coded message was printed in the Personals column. When Smith went to meet Weymouth, his cab ended up with a flat tire and Weymouth received a false telegram from Smith cancelling the meeting. This incident preceded the discovery of the murdered dacoit in the Thames. Smith believes Samarkan has been listening in on their phone conversations and relaying messages to the Si-Fan utilizing the mysterious Zagazig code. The murdered dacoit was to be Smith’s assassin, but was held responsible when the flat tire derailed their plans. It is only then that Rohmer reveals that Smith and Petrie have switched hotels under the pretence of visiting a friend out of town.
Rohmer pays tribute to Edgar Allan Poe for the inspiration for deciphering the cryptogram. Encouraged by Smith to crack the code, Petrie surmises that the word Zagazig is not the code, but rather it is the punctuation marks that separate each letter of the word. This gives him a partial success, but he has not yet broken the code until he realizes that capitalization of the letters in Zagazig and changes from italics to normal font determine breaks in the message. From this he is able to decipher the code at last and realizes that Smith was correct as Samarkan has been relaying their plans as he overheard them. The story ends with Petrie impatiently awaiting his own role to play that night when Smith knowingly walks into a trap at the Joy Shop. The story ends on a thrilling note guaranteed to bring readers back the following month to learn what happened next.
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