Quick Review: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Riverrun/Picador)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUKAn intriguing glimpse into Shanghai’s pre-war underworld

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai’s lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals…

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

Until City of Devils, I had only read Paul French’s shorter books on Asia — mainly on early 20th Century China, but also an excellent short book about Kim Jong-un. In City of Devils, French turns his attention to the criminal underworld of Shanghai in the 1930s, and two foreigners who managed to turn certain sectors of the city into their own private kingdoms. It’s a fascinating look at extraterritoriality, Westerners’ fascination with China, and their willingness to take advantage of their hosts.

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUSThe book focuses on the lives and careers of two foreigners in Shanghai: Jack Riley and Joe Farren, both of whom found themselves inextricably linked to the underground economy of interwar Shanghai. Catering to the party needs of other foreigners in the city (mainly westerners, but also Japanese), the two knew everyone and Riley in particular was the ever-confident chancer. French gives us short intro-bios for each of these two, and a few of their closest confidantes, colleagues and partners. He traces their ascendance in the heady days when everyone felt sufficiently distant from the battlefront to be safe, yet also anxious about the war arriving in China and upending their generally pleasant, expatriate lifestyle.

It’s a fascinating tale, expertly told in the vernacular of the time (which, as the author fully admits in the introduction, can be quite arresting and shocking today). The book is well-paced, engaging throughout, and ultimately tragic, in the same way that any story about an antihero often is. The city and its inhabitants are vividly portrayed, the incredible (and damning) differences between the lives of the foreigners and the Shanghainese is starkly presented.

Very highly recommended, this is one of my favourite books of the year.


City of Devils is published by Riverrun in the UK (June 28th) and Picador in North America (out now).

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