“The House of Hashish” was the sixth installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on February 17, 1917 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 22 – 26 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 House of Hashish” starts off with a wonderfully atmospheric opening with Dr. Petrie keeping a lonely nighttime vigil in the now abandoned shadow-filled wharf-side Joy Shop with only the sound of lapping waves and the incessant squealing of rats to accompany him. From a window, he watches Nayland Smith approach an old beggar woman and overhears their conversation. The old woman claims to have twisted her ankle and begs Smith to help her to the rooms she keeps in a wharf-side warehouse. Smith obliges and, of course, walks into a ruse as a dacoit leaps upon his back and quickly wraps a cord around his neck and begins strangling him. Fearing he is witnessing his friend’s death and helpless to stop him, Petrie is flabbergasted to see Smith’s apparent twin arrive to the rescue. Smith’s double beats off the dacoit and hurls the man into the Thames.
Regrouping at their apartment, Petrie realizes that Smith’s rescuer was a sailor acquaintance from an earlier episode. The man is noted to bear a strong resemblance to Smith. The old beggar woman was, of course, Zarmi in disguise and unsurprisingly, she managed to escape during the fray. From there, Petrie skips ahead in the narrative to the morning when Smith is summoned to the prison where the Si-Fan’s Greek operative, Samarkan is being held. The prisoner was found dead in his cell. Upon their arrival, it is clear to Smith and Petrie that something is amiss. It transpires that Samarkan’s body is missing. An interrogation of his guard reveals that when Samarkan was first brought in, he expressed that he suffered from heart problems. The guard claims that out of kindness he agreed to retrieve his medication for him. Upon further inquiry, the guard breaks down and confesses to having developed a hashish addiction while stationed in the East. He has known Samarkan and his crowd from the hashish house, the Café de l’Egypte located in Soho. The heart medication was Dr. Fu-Manchu’s catalepsy-inducing serum that Smith and Petrie are familiar with from the past. The first injection convinced prison officials that Samarkan had expired of heart failure and the corrupt guard’s second administration of the serum revived Samarkan enabling him to escape from prison.
The story picks up speed as Smith and Petrie are disguised as futurists by Foster at Scotland Yard so that they may infiltrate the artsy environs of the Café de l’Egypte. Smith suspects this may be Fu-Manchu’s new base of operations now that the Joy Shop has been closed. Smith berates Inspector Weymouth for not having told him about the café before. Weymouth informs him that since it was not located in Limehouse, he did not concern himself with a hashish shop catering to the art crowd. Rohmer, who started out as a journalist covering Limehouse, is making a deliberate point about the double standard employed by the police for prosecuting criminal activity. Smith and Petrie repair to the Café de l’Egypte where they down drinks and soak up the atmosphere. Rohmer gets in some light jabs at the pretentious art crowd whose views on art, literature, and music would likely seem foreign to his more conservative readers. They observe denizens of the café with dilated pupils exiting by a rear door into a courtyard. After paying for their drinks, they hide in the alley in the back of the café until they discover that a secret door opens when patrons exit by the rear door that allows them access to a hidden room where hashish may be obtained. Petrie deduces that the hidden room is a disused art studio and that there should be an entrance via a skylight.
What follows is one of Rohmer’s most thrilling episodes as Smith, Petrie, and Weymouth make a perilous night-time rooftop journey through Soho. Rohmer wrings every last bit of suspense as they leap from building to building, scale smokestacks, and navigate parapets before finally reaching the roof of the Café de l’Egypte. From the skylight, they look down upon (literally and figuratively) the surreal sight of a harem of Middle Eastern beauties entertaining the hashish addicts in the room below.
Smith recognizes a colleague from the India Office and is scandalized that a government official is not only a drug addict, but involved in prostitution. Petrie is heartbroken to spy his fiancée, Karamaneh (once more an unwilling slave of the Si-Fan) among the harem entertaining the men. Then Zarmi makes her grand reappearance in the series providing a raunchy burlesque act that leaves Smith and Petrie both repulsed and aroused. Part of the strength of these early stories is how well Rohmer manipulated readers a century ago to be outraged by “Pagan foreigners” while secretly enjoying the same forbidden fruit vicariously. The double standard Weymouth exhibited earlier is the same that Rohmer enjoyed playing upon in his readers’ own Edwardian sensibilities.
Zarmi’s erotic dance in a room full of men smoking hashish with half-dressed women lounging decadently upon pillows would seem to be the pinnacle of what Rohmer could achieve here and sure enough, our voyeurs are interrupted by Dr. Fu-Manchu himself who opens a trap door to the roof and spies them peering through the skylight. Weymouth shouts a warning, but not before Fu-Manchu drops and bolts the trap. There is pandemonium in the room below as the girls run screaming from the room while the men stumble out in their drugged stupor. Dr. Fu-Manchu appears and douses the room with petrol and then ignites it with a burning torch. Smith, Petrie, and Weymouth watch helplessly as the building bursts into flames. It seems like certain death for our heroes until an eleventh hour rescue by the fire brigade who are able to contain the flames but not before the Café de l’Egypte is engulfed in the thrilling conclusion leaving readers virtually panting for the next installment of the serial.
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