“The Black Chapel” was the ninth and final installment of Sax Rohmer’s The Si-Fan Mysteries. The story was first published in Collier’s on June 2, 1917 and was later expanded to comprise Chapters 34 – 40 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 Black Chapel” sees Nayland Smith, Dr. Petrie, and Petrie’s fiancée, Karamaneh (recently liberated from the Si-Fan’s slavery ring) paying a visit to Greywater Park, the ancestral estate that their old friend, Sir Lionel Barton has recently inherited. Rohmer seems determined to shape Greywater Park in the image of Redmoat, the medieval stronghold where Reverend J. D. Eltham (the veteran of the Boxer Uprising who figured in the first two books in the series) resided. As in his appearance in the first book, Sir Lionel is a brilliant, but eccentric Egyptologist based in part on both the real-life Sir Richard Burton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. The character’s larger than life qualities are best exemplified by his menagerie of wild cats and other exotic animals that fill his home alongside his equally exotic foreign servants. Upon their arrival, it is learned that Sir Lionel has fallen ill and is unable to meet with them until the morning. The trio settle in for a strange night in Sir Lionel’s highly unorthodox home when they are disturbed by an inexplicable knocking and a ghostly wailing just as Smith has finished relating Greywater Park’s colorful past in housing a Spanish priest who fled the Inquisition centuries before.
As the night progresses, Petrie turns his attention to the abandoned tower, Monkswell that rests on the grounds. He suspects that the ghostly manifestations emanate from there. While staring out the window into the night, Petrie is startled by the shadow of a man crawling down the sheer wall of the castle, bat-like (in a pleasing nod to Jonathan Harker’s glimpse of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, Dracula). Petrie struggles to remain conscious and realizes that someone has drugged his drink with an opiate. Fighting the effects of the drug, Petrie undertakes a search of the East Tower and finds Smith’s room is empty and fears the worst. Convinced that the shadowy figure scaling the wall was Smith’s assassin, Petrie resolves to avenge his friend’s death only to discover the mysterious climber was Smith himself who returns to his room through the window and informs a startled Petrie that Sir Lionel has disappeared.
Smith explains that Sir Lionel’s Greek servant Homopoulo is a member of the Si-Fan. Not only have Sir Lionel and his valet, Kennedy been abducted, but Smith and Petrie soon learn that Karamaneh has also been taken. They discover the secret passage leading from Sir Lionel’s room to Karamaneh’s and then make their way downstairs and find the passageway leading to a secret medieval torture chamber where Homopoulo and a dacoit are carrying off Karamaneh. Smith and Petrie succeed in rescuing Sir Lionel and set off in pursuit when the sound of a leopard and lioness snarling brings them to a halt. Homopoulo has not remembered his employer’s exotic pets and he and the dacoit have their throats torn out by Sir Lionel’s big cats. While Sir Lionel quickly brings his pets under control, Petrie and Smith are relieved to find a drugged Karamaneh still unconscious and unharmed.
The story resumes the following day when a servant of Sir Lionel’s neighbor arrives to announce that his master has stumbled upon the insensible body of Nayland Smith while out walking. Petrie and Sir Lionel rush to the neighboring estate and find Smith recovering consciousness. He explains that he had gone to London and succeeded in obtaining plans of Greywater Park’s secret passages as well as the plans of Monkswell (from the Manuscript Room of the British Museum). He was set upon while returning to Greywater Park and the plans were stolen from him. Sir Lionel is outraged that the enemy now knows his property better than he does. Smith assures him that Fu-Manchu will strike soon for he plans to leave England that very night.
Smith explains that Homopoulo had likewise visited the British Museum several months before and, like Smith, obtained a copy of Brother Anselm’s plans for the medieval tower. His visit preceded the mysterious death of Brangholme Burton, the former owner of Greywater Park, who bequeathed the estate to Sir Lionel. Smith informs Sir Lionel that a secret passage exists beneath the River Starn that connects Greywater Park to Monkswell. Most shocking of all, Smith reveals the secret chapel in Monkswell was used as a meeting place by the Cult of Asmodeus to conduct Black Masses. What is more, Smith explains that Ki-Ming’s yacht, the Chanak Kampo, is lying in wait just two miles off the coast. Whatever Dr. Fu-Manchu is planning, it is evident he has prepared his getaway for Smith’s contact has informed him the yacht is manned entirely by Asians and has sighted a beautiful Eurasian girl on deck as well suggesting that Fu-Manchu’s daughter is also on board.
Smith, Petrie, and Sir Lionel return to Greywater Park during a terrible thunderstorm. Smith leads the way to Sir Lionel’s bedroom and they follow the secret passage down to the tunnel that leads under the River Starn. They find that Dr. Fu-Manchu has left the pathway guarded with dozens of deadly scorpions, the red centipedes that carry the dread Zayat Kiss, a puff adder, and a poisonous spider. Petrie’s nerves nearly give way, but Smith calmly uses a flashlight to drive the nocturnal creatures into hiding as they make their way through the treacherous passage. Breaking into the secret chapel of Asmodeus, they find the body of the Si-Fan seductress, Zarmi lying strangled on the floor. Next to her lies the body of the Si-Fan’s Greek agent, Samarkan with Zarmi’s dagger in his corpse. Leaving this bloody scene of treachery behind, they soon locate the hidden stairwell and close in on Dr. Fu-Manchu, but the Devil Doctor manages a last minute escape by motorboat with Nayland Smith swearing the harbor police will overtake Ki-Ming’s yacht before they can quit British waters.
The Si-Fan Mysteries reaches an abrupt finale as we advance to the following day following a terrible storm that wrecked over twenty boats on the Thames overnight. Smith, Petrie, and Sir Lionel find the wreckage of Ki-Ming’s yacht, Chanak Kampo washed ashore. No bodies are recovered. The first two Fu-Manchu thrillers likewise offer similar inconclusive endings, but Rohmer did intend for this to be Fu-Manchu’s final appearance. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, Rohmer tired of his most famous creation and tried to finish him off. It would be over a decade before Rohmer acquiesced to a lucrative offer from Doubleday to revive the character, but that is a story for another day.
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 soon 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