Paul French brings another true crime story in 1930s China to life. In this book, he focuses on the underbelly of Shanghai concessions in the mid-1930s. With the city divided up into numerous quarters, each with their own laws and tolerance of criminal enterprise.

The International Settlement governed itself—not a colony like Hong Kong or Singapore, but a treaty port, a place of trade and enrichment for the conquerors. … The Settlement represented fourteen foreign powers—Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States—who had extracted treaty port rights from a weak and teetering Qing Dynasty China. Each had its own consulate and courts within the Settlement, for within the Settlement a foreigner was not subject to Chinese justice but only to that of his or her own nation.

Jack Riley, an American ne’er-do-well, managed to escape the prison system and get to Shanghai, where he blended into the crooked shanty alleyways and cellars. He realized the potential in slot machines and built an empire across the concessions. Not satisfied with owning the market on “one-armed bandits,” Riley also smuggled contraband inside the guts of these mechanical monsters.

At the same time, Joe Farran quite literally danced his way out of a ghetto in Austria as the Nazis were rising to power. Shanghai didn’t care that he was Jewish — he and his partner had the best chorus girl show in town. He made a fortune under the hot stage lights, sweltering in the stuffy city and opened his own club.

Xu Lai, film actress from Shanghai, in 1930s

Joe and Jack ran in the same circles, drank in the same clubs, lost money on the same races. And in the last fading years — between the invasion of Japan and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the two teamed up to create what they thought was an impermeable fortress of gambling, crime and nightlife.

[The Japanese] avoided attacking the foreign concession, not yet wanting war with the European powers and America. … The International Settlement and the French Concession became the ‘Solitary Island’ … While the phosphorous flames of the fox demons of war swirled through the burnt-out streets and devastated quarters of the Chinese portions of the city, the Japanese entered the house and took everything.

While his earlier book, Midnight in Peking, was a murder mystery, City of Devils is more of a hard-boiled crime story. It is less of a whodunit and more of a watchhowtheydidit. Though it is nonfiction, he often writes as though it is a noir detective novel. It can take a few pages to get used to this style but it works. And French manages to sustain it effectively throughout.

This is a sparkling history of a brief time in a No Man’s Land, and the bright people who burned fiercely, and all too quickly.

My rating: 

My thanks to Picador for the review copy.


Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Picador (July 3, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1250170583
ISBN-13: 978-1250170583
Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches

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