Paul French is my summer discovery. I bought City of devils after seeing a brief review in The Economist and because ever since my trip to Shanghai in 2010 I’ve been fascinated by the life in the International Settlement in the 20s and 30s. In general, I’m fascinated by decadent cities on the brink of catastrophe so you can add Berlin 1919-1934 to the list. I loved City of devils so much that I straight away bough other books by Paul French (another review to follow).
What is this about?
As described on an online-shopping site: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
As described by yours truly:Shanghai in the 1930s. The international settlement, the French quarter (Frenchtown), its casinos, restaurants, luxurious hotels and its underworld. City of devils tells the story of this underworld through two of its main figures, Joe Farren and his dancers and Jack Riley and his slot machines. It is a story of poverty, of rise to riches, of downfall, all set against the background of a word plunging slowly into chaos.
Why should you read the book?
Because you are going to learn a lot. I knew of the Treaty ports and the concession because I had read Le Lotus Bleu and been to Shanghai. But I didn’t know about Farren and Riley, had no idea about the Badlands, the size of the White Russian community in Shanghai nor of the life of the hundreds (if not thousands) of Jewish refugees who lived there in the 1930s.
City of Devils is a book you cannot put down. Not that the characters are particularly likeable (Farren sort of is, Riley less so), but because it describes a fascinating world that has completely disappeared and has been largely forgotten. The book also chronicles the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese and the ruthless and violent regime they impose. In a way, in the 1930s Shanghai was the Orient’s answer to 1920s Berlin, in its unbridled love of life, in its abject poverty and in its ultimately tragic fate.
Finally, the writing style of Paul French is sometimes difficult (he uses a lot of slang of the time that I struggled with as a non-native speaker), but very good. It is quick, witty and really engaging.
An amazing book that I highly recommend!