House of Eight Orchids

Written by James Thayer
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1912 in Chongqing China, five-year-old John Wade and two-year-old William, sons of the American consul, are kidnapped. They are taken by a eunuch, Chang Tao, to his enclave, the House of Eight Orchids. Chang, a crook, trains “Yellow Hair” John – being stronger than his brother – in martial arts, knife fighting, and all the Eastern techniques of maiming and killing people efficiently. “Red Hair” William is encouraged to develop his artistic talents through painting and calligraphy, to be channeled into forgery and put to good use by Chang in thievery and embezzlement activities. John provides the muscle power, for muggings and such, during these raids. Surprisingly, although under the strict control of Chang, the “round-eyed foreign devils” serve loyally in these clandestine pursuits for 25 years. It would seem both are happy and make no attempt to escape, even though once John participates in an American gold shipment heist dressed as a U.S. Army officer. However, when William’s involvement with a Chinese beauty raises Chang’s wrath, they attempt to escape from his clutches, assisted by a woman missionary doctor from Idaho.

James Thayer has written this historical novel in the style of a thriller. The images of pre-WWII China are well-described: the characteristics of the people, villages, flora and fauna along the Yangtze, with the junks and gunboats plying  its waters. The scenes play in our mind as we follow the characters and learn about the happenings in the house that grew eight orchids, named for the supposedly lucky number eight. Although the action scenes of fights and the fugitives’ escape are vividly shown, we have to plough through the numerous twists and turns in the plot, some rather amusing, up to the ending to learn of the fate of the two kidnapped American boys and Chang.