The Devil’s In the Details4 min read

Lisa Brackmann reviews City of Devils by Paul French


For the first third of Paul French’s latest nonfiction book set in historical China, I felt guilty for enjoying it as much as I did. There are few places more romanticized in the Western imagination than pre-WWII Shanghai, and City Of Devils plays into those tropes: exotic, corrupt Shanghai, “home to hopeful souls from several dozen nations joined together by one simple guiding ethos: money and the getting of it.” It is a portrait of a city filled with gamblers, soldiers-of-fortune and opium dens. Its occupants include “White Russian women of dubious occupation,” “dead-eyed Eurasian Macanese” and “hard-working Filipinas and Formosans” plying their trade in the flops and whorehouses of Blood Alley.

City Of Devils focuses on two Westerners who have come to Shanghai to prosper and to escape: dapper Joe Farren, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Europe whose nightclubs and performing troupes earned him the nickname “the Ziegfeld of Shanghai” (after the Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld), and American fugitive Jack Riley, the “Slots King” making his fortune with his fists, his smarts, and a pair of loaded dice. French tells their stories – and those of others in their orbit – with panache and using the vernacular of the time, making for a true tale that reads like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum should have starred in the film adaptation.

Here’s a taste of the prose: “Don’t be thinking Jackpot Jack has no ambition. He’s looking to move up and move on from the drunks of Blood Alley. Even old Sam Levy at the Venus Café is going upmarket with his Manila Rhythm Boys and a troupe of thick-legged, high-kicking Korean dancers Joe’s taught to cancan, while Al Israel’s Del Monte swings till three or four in the morning with another Joe Farren choreographed floor show, and Demon on the door keeping the drunks and the squaddies out.” City of Devils is nonfiction that reads like a novel, with the narrative voice supplying both the period tone and insight into the mindsets of French’s cast of characters – although those insights are speculative in places, where the historical record is thin.

This is a boys’ own adventure told in increasingly darker shades of noir – the kind of tale where a woman is a dame, and without much place in it for the Chinese on whose land Shanghai’s international settlement was built. The events of the book take place in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but it is no wonder that in the decades after 1949, when the Communists won the civil war that followed the defeat of Japan in 1945, so many Chinese had such an ambivalent relationship with Shanghai, a city that was built with their labor, but made by and for foreigners.

French does not ignore this, and describes the fundamental injustice on which Shanghai was founded, as one of the spoils of war fought over opium. Opium was the city’s blood and bedrock: unavoidable, inescapable. As the city deteriorated under Japanese rule, opium and a range of illicit narcotics became a more reliable segment of its economy than just about anything else. These drugs include philopon, the methamphetamine taken by Japanese troops that French characterizes as a “murder drug” – one that turned them into killers able to burn, loot and murder with no restraint.

For a time, the foreign communities of Shanghai depicted in French’s book exist in an uneasy bubble, a “Solitary Island” set apart from the brutalities of the Japanese invasion. “To the north of the Settlement,” French writes, “Chapei and Paoshan continued to burn bright for weeks while Zero fighters and the Yank-crewed Flying Tigers dog-fought over the skies. Shanghailanders watched the free show from the roof of the Cathay Hotel with binoculars – white dames in sheer satin and pearls sipping black market champagne as hell raged overhead and planes spiraled down into the Pootung marshes.”

Of course, there would be a reckoning for the foreigners living in this fragile shelter. Many did not have passports, either because of their refugee status or their criminal histories. Those who could leave, did. Those who could not faced an increasingly dark, precarious future. French shows how the Shanghailanders’ separation from the Chinese masses slowly disintegrated, and when the foreign quarters of the city finally fell to the Japanese, the Chinese legends and superstitions that French quotes throughout the book become horrible reality: “The devils have won the city, the wolves come to feast on the weak, the alligators to snap up the dead, the opium ghosts to roam, the phosphorescent kwei huo to dance on the city’s fallen ramparts.”

I enjoyed City Of Devils tremendously, as a piece of history come to vivid life, and as a meditation on hubris, overreach and how some people’s innate craving for adventure can lead to disaster. The fate of many of those depicted in French’s book is very grim indeed. We need nonconformists and adventurers, we crave their stories, but our world has little place for them. The reality of a Jack Riley is not nearly as entertaining as the legend. ∎


Paul French, City of Devils (Picador USA, July 2018; Penguin, March 2018)