City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

…The swells, the punters, the opium, and a few extra gelts…

Paul French’s City of Devils combines one part oral history, one part entertainment rag, and one part true crime story to tell the bawdy history of the boom days in Shanghai between the wars. French describes it as “The Wild East,” an international settlement where fourteen governments looked out for the political and legislative whims of their own citizens.

This is the war zone of sex, entertainment, gambling and drugs that American on the lam Jack Riley, and Viennese dance-troupe leader Joe Farren ran to in the early 1930s to escape their pasts and find their fortunes. From their humble begins as bar owner and chorus line director respectively to dope smugglers and owners of the biggest night clubs in the city, the men spent a decade in Shanghai hurtling towards the tragedy of excess.

French’s writing is transformative in time and culture. The first part of the book is told entirely in the rhythm and lingo of gangster-talk, a mixture of Far East slang, mafioso toughness, and cultural euphemisms. Other parts of the book take a step back and allow for a more complete and nuanced look at the varied players in the illicit underworld. The reader can only imagine the exhaustive amount of research French has done to put together the pieces of these people’s lives. I thoroughly the excerpts from one of the criminal-funded newspapers, The Shopping News, the author placed between chapters.

City of Devils is an awesome trip back in time, and Paul French should be commended for his imaginative storytelling. From the high rollers at the hai alai courts and the glitz of the dance reviews to the machinations of the world powers at the beginning of the second war, French strives to tell the complete story.

5 out of 5 stars

Comes out on July 3rd.

Thank you to NetGalley, Picador Books, and Mr. French for the advanced copy for review.

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