Opening with a great Prologue – it’s 1912 and two young boys, the sons of the American council, are snatched in a move distinctly out of Fagan’s bag of tricks, off a street in Chungqing, China never to see their parents again and actually, according to the narrator, never to really “escape.” House of 8 Orchids is a kind of spy-thriller I chose myself because of a friend’s recommendation and then it went on sale. It did sound good – I enjoy books which take place in settings outside the US. Also, it’s historical fiction of WWII era inland China.
House of 8 Orchids
by James Thayer
2016 / 281 pages
read by Will Damron – 10h 21m
rating – A / crime-spy
Chungqing, China is an old city, the capital of the Qin Dynasty (builders of the Great Wall) in about 200 BC. More importantly Chungqing was the center of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th – 17th centuries.
In the 21st century it’s known as a very corrupt city, but there has been a recent crackdown.
“The Qing dynasty, officially the Great Qing also called the Qing Empire by itself or the Manchu dynasty by foreigners, was the last imperial dynasty of China, established in 1636 and ruling China from 1644 to 1912. It was preceded by the Ming dynasty and succeeded by the Republic of China. The Qing multi-cultural empire lasted almost three centuries and formed the territorial base for the modern Chinese state.”
When the main story opens in 1937 Chungqing is recenty under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic although he has gone. This is also three weeks after Nanking fell to the Japanese in WWII.
John Wade is now 30 years old and his brother about 27. They have lived under the protection of Eunuch Chong and his gang at the House of 8 Orchids for 25 years. This is the only life the boys have ever known. Because of his prodigious skill in art, William has been trained as a forger while John, our 1st person narrator, is more of an actual gangster with complete loyalty to Eunuch Chong. Eunuch Chong demands complete obedience and loyalty.
Eunuch Chong keeps a group of boys called the “rough boys” whose job it is to steal and fight for him. The boys there are mostly stolen from the streets. They steal and fight other gangs. John brings one of them back but that’s horribly dangerous.
Madam Tuon is another powerful force in the House of 8 Orchids. Her fingernails leave scars on backs.
While John takes care of business, William forges great art works for sale by the Eunuch. He meets a woman he wants to paint which he is allowed to do once in awhile.
One day after seeing the movie star Tsingtao Lily in a role in a movie, the gang captures her with intent to sell – for quite a profit. But William succumbs to her advances and the two of them try an escape. John has to choose which loyalty he honors, Eunuch Chong or William and the chase is on.
It’s a pretty interesting chase with an American doctor, a couple of junker boats and American vessels and assorted characters, fishermen and monks and knife-makers and naval commanders, etc. who are either working for Eunuch Chong or, occasionally, help John.
One interesting thing is the strength of the women. From Tsingtao Lily to Madam Tuan to Doctor Elizabeth Hanley, the Chinese helper girl and a couple of townswomen were all individually developed and vital. The men got a bit blurred but the women didn’t. The dog is also a huge and interesting character.