It only took me six years but in the summer of 2018 I finally got around to reading Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Not only did Midnight in Peking did make my Top Five Books of Summer but also my year-end list of Best Nonfiction. While I didn’t notice it at the time, that same summer another book by Paul French was released. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is another in-depth look at the seedy underside of a major Chinese city on the eve of World War II. Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Peking I didn’t run out and get a copy of City of Devils. But I figured someday in the near future I’d read it.
Recently, I was bored, found myself searching Overdrive for something new to read and saw City of Devils was available to borrow. After downloading it to my Kindle I jumped into French’s 2018 book and never looked back. Just like Midnight in Peking there’s a good chance it make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.
Today we think of Shanghai as the ultra modern Paris of the Orient. China’s richest and largest city is blessed with a booming economy, futuristic skyline and a well deserved reputation as a global hub for international trade, finance and transportation. But in the decades prior to the Second World War Shanghai was a much different place. Thanks to a collection of unequal treaties imposed upon China by the Western powers and Japan, Shanghai, while technically a Chinese city, was home to several foreign settlements, each separately administered by British, French, American and Japanese authorities. Within these foreign enclaves Chinese sovereignty didn’t apply and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed. The city was home to thousands of Russian refugees who’d fled Communist rule as well as countless Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Adding to this polyglot mix were a number of residents from Italy and the Philippines.
In its heyday, Shanghai, just like Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine was a wretched hive of scum and villainy rife with gambling, prostitution, corruption, gun-running, drugs and alcohol. At the same time, coexisting with this vice was a lively world of wealth, opulence and sophistication as well-heeled crowds danced the night away in palatial ballrooms to the music of world-class orchestras. African American bands from Harlem served up cutting edge jazz to appreciative audiences on a nightly basis. Shanghai was a mixture of New York City, Paris, London and Roaring 20s mob-ruled Chicago with Russian and Yiddish overtones transported to the Orient.
Two self-made men, both of them foreigners, ruled free-wheeling Shanghai like modern royalty. One was “Lucky” Jack Riley, U.S. Navy boxing champion and escaped convict, his introduction of slot machines to Shanghai revolutionized the city’s gambling scene. The other was “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who went from professional ballroom dancer to nightclub mogul and with it Shanghai’s premier man about town. But, as history as shown us time and time again, impressive fortunes can fall as fast, or even faster than they rise and when it came to those of Lucky and Dapper there would be no exceptions.
I thoroughly enjoyed City of Devils. If you’re a fan of Erik Larson or anyone else who has the gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction this book is for you. I have no problem recommending this great book.