City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir by Paul French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley
Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom opens in 1935 at a club in the city of Shanghai. Jones is going to met a gangster, and, of course, the shit hits the fan. It is a Hollywood version of what Shanghai was like during the interwar years. Yet, there is some truth to it. The city did have Badlands, and there were clubs that not only hired but catered to expatriates from America and Europe. In his book City of Devils, Paul French presents the truth and while it does involve show girls there is a great more drugs, murder, and the looming threat of war.
French details Shanghai, in particular Joe Farren and Jack Riley, two men who were sometimes engaged in legal business and sometimes in not so legal business. Joe Farren started as a Fred Astaire or Vernon Castle type. Escaping Vienna and touring Asia with his wife and the dance troupe they eventually started. Farren is the dapper man, the married man with his wife Nellie. He does resemble, at least in French’s description.
Riley is more of a gangster type. American, blunt, and physical as opposed to dapper. But not stupid, not stupid at all. His washing up at Shanghai isn’t so much to do with his performance ability. The two men are sometimes partners, sometimes rivals, sometimes enemies.
In the story of the rise and fall of the two men, French also describes the imploding of Shanghai as an international colony forced upon the Chinese as well as the coming Second World War. It isn’t just crime that causes the problems but also the Japanese and the shifting of power.
At points, French introduces newspaper columns and Chinese views on what is occurring – either the view of the white men or the invading Japanese. It is those bits that are the most moving and wonderful because they move the book beyond a simple history of the underworld.
French writes with passion and vigor. His prose is quite engrossing, and he does the best he can with limited sources. What is most interesting (and hardy lest surprising) is that the women were harder to trace than the men. It is to French’s credit that he shows the women as more than just molls or enablers. In fact, a few of them are movers and shakers.
The book is both engaging and engrossing.
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