In his new book City of Devils, Paul French, author of the prizewinning true crime Midnight in Peking, does for Old Shanghai what he previously did for Old Beijing: portrays a city through its historical criminals ... Almost no one writing in English today does as much to capture the many faces of Shanghai: futuristic while crumbling, arrogant while insecure, cosmopolitan while provincial ... City of Devils markets itself as 'the story of the rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake,' of the bad boys of the Shanghai Badlands. But it is at least as good a read for the pen portrait it paints of Old Shanghai, as the city ran itself down into the half century of obscurity that would follow under Communism ... City of Devils is a tale for our times.
In the 1930s, Shanghai was an outpost of wealth, culture and vice in a country riven by civil war. Within the port city’s borders was a smaller island, the International Settlement, created by Britain in the 19th century as a beachhead for the opium trade it forced upon the Chinese ... the Settlement and its adjacent neighborhoods, the French Concession and Badlands, were hemmed in by a China 'constantly on the point of collapse, about to fragment into a hundred warring states,' its denizens 'the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing; those who sought adventure far from the Great Depression and poverty; the desperate who sought sanctuary from fascism and communism; those who sought to build criminal empires; and those who wished to forget,' writes British-born author Paul French in his new nonfiction book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai ... French conjures out of old records, newspaper clippings and survivors’ memories a true story with the dark resonance of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential and the seedy glamour of Alan Furst’s between-the-wars mysteries. It’s the tale of two antiheroes, men who had lived several lives by the time they got to Shanghai.
By dint of an enormous amount of research, French follows these two men and dozens of their associates through all the twists and turns of their careers, culminating in the last thing either Farren or Riley ever thought would happen: the two of them joining forces to create 'much of the city's reputation as an international capital of sin and vice.' Much like Old Shanghai itself, this story of the rise to power of two opportunistic grifters had a terminus carved in stone from its very start; no matter how many show girls Farren could bully, no matter how many slot machines Riley owned, the old ramshackle den of crime and dissipation was doomed by the larger geopolitical events coming to a broil outside the paper-weak boundaries of the foreign settlements ... Readers seeking that old glamour and style will now have City of Devils to help them.
It's a story of old Shanghai. It’s the story of racial and class divides. It’s the story of a city between world wars and the fall of the 'Paris of the Orient' during the second. And it features a cast of dozens, all brought back to life with vivid detail and panache by Paul French ... French’s powerful voice is perfectly suited to his subject matter. The omnipresent, hardboiled narration would be at home in any noir, and though this is nonfiction, the larger-than-life figures fall into nearly every trope of that genre. There are deadly dames aplenty—beautiful showgirls, desperate prostitutes, dangerous drug addicts, and mobster’s molls. Cutthroat racketeers who stack the odds in the house’s favor, pull razor blades during riots, and shrug when someone else takes the fall for their transgressions. Toadies and henchmen. Traitors and corrupt G-men ... From the very introduction, you’ll be hooked. I honestly can’t remember the last time a work of nonfiction was so compelling and readable; I devoured half of the book before I came up for air.
Though the book shows signs of being exhaustively researched, much of the material, by the author’s own admission, has been freely embroidered ... Details have been invented. Even reproductions of newspaper articles have been punched up 'with one or two minor additions in the interest of advancing the narrative.' And since French includes no endnotes or even a list of sources, it’s impossible to know just where the facts end and the folklore begins ... And if the book is never quite as engrossing or entertaining as it should be, it is at least atmospheric enough to keep one turning pages.
Before WWII, Shanghai was the Paris of the Orient, but the level of criminal underground activity had foreign powers fearing it would also become 'Chicago on the Whangpoo.' ... With the narrative rhythm of classic noir and the polyglot slang of 1930s Shanghai, French, tells a fast-paced, page-turning yarn about the rise and fall of two of the city’s crime kings.
Fast-paced, plot-twisty true-crime tale of the kingpins of Shanghai’s Old City, land of miscreant opportunity ... The old Terry & the Pirates comic strip had it right: The mysterious East was just the place for an enterprising lawbreaker to homestead. So it was for a sad sack named Jack 'Lucky' Riley, who changed his name after releasing himself on his own recognizance from a stateside prison. He skipped across the Pacific to the Philippines and 'buddie[d] up with the Navy boys and jump[ed] a U.S. Army transport heading for Shanghai.' ... Other figures, including tequila smuggler Carlos Garcia and New York mobster 'Yasha' Katzenberg, enter and exit French’s carefully constructed stage, each one up to no good. In addition to this suspenseful yarn, the author paints a striking portrait of a Shanghai on the eve of Japanese occupation, which would bring many a crime empire to its knees ... A Casablanca without heroes and just the thing for those who like their crime stories the darkest shade of noir.
Drugs, gambling, vice, and banditry power China’s seaport mecca in this rollicking true crime saga. Historian French recreates Shanghai between the world wars, when its extraterritorial status—the United States, European nations, and Japan legally controlled parts of the city—made it a booming metropolis and home to a teeming expat community of Jews fleeing Nazism, Russians fleeing bolshevism, and shady Westerners fleeing their pasts ... French’s panorama centers on Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who became a dance-show impresario and casino-owner; and Jack Riley, an escaped convict from Oklahoma who ran slot machines, smuggled heroin, and financed Farren’s classier enterprises ... In French’s wonderfully atmospheric portrait, Shanghai is a tapestry of grungy dive bars, swanky nightspots, drunken soldiers, brazen showgirls, Chinese gangsters, corrupt cops, and schemers like 'Evil Evelyn,' a madam who enticed wealthy wives with gigolos and blackmailed them with the resulting photos.
...The premise of City of Devils feels indistinguishable from that of a novel, but this is narrative non-fiction; French is up-front in his preface that, though historical accuracy has been his watchword, 'assumptions have been made' where information is missing ... French is steeped in stories of old Shanghai, and his understanding of the time and period allows him to build a fully-realized world around his compelling characters. A large part of the book’s joy is in its detail: the fashion, the drinks, the drugs, the cars, the bars, the slang. French writes in a present-tense heavy, hard-boiled prose which consciously alludes to the crime novels of James Ellroy, peppering his description and dialogue with the patois of the time.