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'City of Devils' review: Paul French conjures colorful Shanghai underworld of 1930s

"City of Devils" by Paul French (Picador, July 2018) Photo Credit: Picador

CITY OF DEVILS: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, by Paul French. Picador, 299 pp., $28.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was an outpost of wealth, culture and vice in a country riven by civil war. Within the port city’s borders was a smaller island, the International Settlement, created by Britain in the 19th century as a beachhead for the opium trade it forced upon the Chinese.

The Settlement and its adjacent neighborhoods, the French Concession and Badlands, were hemmed in by a China “constantly on the point of collapse, about to fragment into a hundred warring states,” its denizens “the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing; those who sought adventure far from the Great Depression and poverty; the desperate who sought sanctuary from fascism and communism; those who sought to build criminal empires; and those who wished to forget," writes British-born author Paul French in his new nonfiction book, “City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai. ”

French, an Edgar Award winner for his 2011 book, “Midnight in Peking,” and a veteran China hand, conjures out of old records, newspaper clippings and survivors’ memories a true story with the dark resonance of James Ellroy’s novel “L.A. Confidential” and the seedy glamour of Alan Furst’s between-the-wars mysteries. It’s the tale of two antiheroes, men who had lived several lives by the time they got to Shanghai.

Lucky Jack Riley, born Fahnie Albert Becker, survived an orphanage upbringing and escaped Oklahoma by enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Discharged, he took up taxi driving in Tulsa and then, drawn into a gambling heist gone bad, landed in the state penitentiary on a kidnapping charge. Starting pitcher on the prison baseball team, Becker walked away during an out-of-pen game and fled west. He tried to erase his fingerprints with acid. He became a teetotaler, living on caffeine and Benzedrine.

Washing up in Shanghai, he conceives a brilliant plan to smuggle slot machines into the gambling-mad city. Becker becomes Jack Riley, the Slots King of Shanghai.

Joe Farren was born Josef Pollak, a Viennese Jew desperate to escape the ghetto. Josef “learns to dance, slicks down his hair with pomade, keeps his fingers clean” and meets a White Russian named Nellie. They merge into a graceful exhibition dance team and join entertainers on a Far East tour; when the troupe leaves Shanghai, Joe and Nellie stay. Farren will eventually run “the biggest, fanciest, richest nightclub and casino Shanghai has ever seen,” French writes. Riley and Farren become lords of the city’s nightlife and pay princely sums to the authorities to stave off gambling raids. Farren brings in top musical talent like the Harlem Gentlemen, who play Cab Callaway and Louis Armstrong arrangements for the swells that pack his joint.

Jack and Joe stay up all night and in the morning they count the money; fantastic amounts of money, but never enough. They start smuggling dope, mostly heroin, on the side. The profits roll in until the battle now raging between the Japanese and the free Chinese spills into the city — the Japanese invent a provocation and put in motion the takeover of Shanghai. Soon, only those with no identification papers or exit visas are left behind, and they find the “vast empire of rackets dumped in their laps, gratis.” It’s a short reprieve. By the time the Japanese are done, almost nothing of old Shanghai will survive.

The author peoples the stage with mobsters and musicians, girlfriends and sailors, dope dealers and addicts, thugs and AWOL Marines known as "the Friends of Riley." In the mix are a few frustrated lawmen, a lot of government crooks and some vicious sadists. Front and center are Riley and Farren. They’re criminals, but they’re not cruel; French creates sympathy in the reader for two renegades with nowhere else to go.

He tells his story in short, propulsive chapters. Clips from Shanghai’s seediest paper, the Shopping News, whose loathsome editor ran a sideline in blackmail, provide a verification of sorts for fantastic events, and a glossary brings alive the “linguistic Tower of Babel” of Shanghai. Through the action march legions of the city’s dead, refugees from the Sino-Japanese war who found nothing but disease and starvation behind the gates of the city.

As it stared into the abyss, Shanghai created its own monsters to explain the evil stalking the old city — where, French writes, “wolves come to feast on the weak, the alligators to snap up the dead, the opium ghosts to roam,” where vengeful fire spirits "dance on the city's fallen ramparts." Reader advisory: By the time you are done with this extraordinary book, you will believe in devils, too.

Paul French reads from 'City of Devils'

WHEN | WHERE Friday, July 20, at 5 p.m., BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton

INFO 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com

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