Paul French talks nonfiction noir with Jonathan Chatwin
Paul French was born in London, educated there and in Glasgow, and lived and worked in Shanghai for two decades. His book Midnight in Peking was a New York Times Bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, a Mystery Writers’ of America Edgar award winner for Best Fact Crime and a Crime Writers’ Association (UK) Dagger award for nonfiction. His most recent book, City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir, tells the story of ‘Lucky’ Jack Riley, an American prison escapee who spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai, and “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto and became ruler of the Shanghai nightclubs.
Where did the research for City of Devils start?
My first port of call is newspapers, specifically the old China coast newspapers, which are mainly – though not exclusively – in English: the North China Daily News; the China Press; the Shanghai Mercury; the Peking Gazette. Some of it is online, but not much has been scanned, so you have to go to the British Library newspaper archive, Hong Kong University library or the Zikawei library in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai, and use originals or microfilms. In going through those, you find stories which give you threads to pull at. And the stories are important in context of the Sinology. City of Devils, for instance, takes its lead from Frederic Wakeman’s Sinological work. He wrote two books, on policing Shanghai in the 1930s and on Shanghai’s Badlands. But both are focused on the Chinese experience, whereas I write about the foreigners.
As well as Shanghai’s English language papers there are what were called the “mosquito press” – which were generally salacious, infrequently published and, when they appeared, included every possible tabloid detail. Some Chinese archives (such the National Archives in Beijing) have scanned in the Chinese newspapers and also the movie and celebrity magazines as well, which report in scandalous detail on the stars of the day. Of course, verifying their stories is difficult, so for an academic a lot of this stuff is very problematic, but for a literary nonfiction writer it’s gold-dust.
Do you remember coming across the story of Joe and Jack?
Yes, it was in the newspapers. Because they ended up in court, it was reported extensively. If you cross a line and end up in the judicial system, it will be in the court records, in the Shanghai Municipal Police Records, and it might be in the Special Branch and Intelligence Service records, depending on what their misdemeanours were. From that you have full names and dates of birth, so you can start looking for them elsewhere: passports, shipping records and so on. A lot also depends on which country they are from: it might mean looking in the US Library of Congress (excellent for passport data), or in the UK National Archives at Kew (which include Foreign Office records and so all communications from Britain’s embassy and consulates in China), or looking online.
For City of Devils there wasn’t anything at Kew, but when I wrote Midnight in Peking the whole stash of documentation was there, because it was the British daughter of a British diplomat who was murdered, and it was investigated by a British policeman. There’s always additional stuff in the Chinese archives too, which for the documents from the Republican period has remained, mostly, open. There are challenges researching the lives of foreigners in the Chinese archives, though: for one thing, you have to work out what transliterations have been used for Western names, so you might be missing stuff you don’t know about. You need to play about with many potential transliterations of names to get a hit.
How do you deal with sources of questionable veracity?
I’m quite honest with the reader and admit that while I’ll try and verify everything, in the last instance, I’ll just go with the best story. With literary nonfiction, especially when the stories deal with crime and everybody is lying anyway, there will have to be guesstimates and there will have to be jumps. Academic works, if they come across gaps in a life, just have to leave blanks; I will generally find a way around that, through taking a best guess. Academics might see that as cheeky or slapdash, but my argument is that it’s fine as long as you’re honest with the audience and say, “Well, I’ve done as much as I can – it’s not that there isn’t more to find out, and if you happen to know anything please tell me – but I’ve had to make some educated guesses.”
And for the types of book you’re writing, everything needs to fit into a narrative arc.
You have to discriminate; you can’t include every single fact you come across. With City of Devils, for instance, there were too many great characters, too many murders, too many crimes, too many nightclubs – too much of everything. You’ve got to trim it down. For example, I have Joe and Jack meeting at the Red Rose Cabaret quite a lot. I know that they did meet there, because Jack was a bouncer there for a while, and it was a club where quite a lot of the Jewish demimonde met after hours – but they also probably met at all sorts of other places too. But you don’t want to confuse the reader unnecessarily – it’s a narrative convention that everyone goes to that one bar, otherwise everytime two characters meet you have to describe an entirely new location. It’s because of those literary conventions that it’s called literary nonfiction.
You also have to deal with point of view. Midnight in Peking is unapologetically from the point of view of the murder victim’s father. I felt he was a character who arced through the entire story, ultimately a sympathetic character and, in my opinion, he the solution to the crime. If I told the story from multiple points of view it would have been a very different book, probably not literary nonfiction and more like a police report.
How does the research and writing process work for you?
I do most of the research first, and then start writing. You have to know absolutely everything about your period – what people wore, what perfume they favored. Understanding shopping habits and fashion is a great way to get under the skin of the period. I’m also fascinated by the slang: whenever I read any document, I’m looking for informalities. In City of Devils, I wanted to capture the polyglot slang of cosmopolitan Shanghai: the Yiddish, the Russian, the Chinese. So I was mining a lot of that stuff from memoirs, newspapers and the advertising of the time. Shanghai’s magazines and newspapers, in particular, were very tabloid, so for true crime and the demimonde, they are perfect sources.
Does the international nature of Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century mean it is a particularly well-documented place and period?
Definitely, and it means there is more information about it everywhere else, too. You can find stories in the UK National Archives, the Library of Congress, the French archives in Nantes, Special Branch archives – as well as the personal archives of people such as Carl Crow, Emily Hahn and Edgar Snow, who lived that world. So I’m not reliant on Chinese archives, which would be a precarious position to be in at the moment. At one point, I heard that the Municipal Archives on the Bund had been closed, as they didn’t want developers getting their hands on the building blueprints held there – whether it’s true or not I’m not sure, but there certainly are greater restrictions on access these days.
How long does the research period take?
That’s a hard question to answer to any satisfaction! I started my book of notes for City of Devils in 2010, but I first read Frederic Wakeman and learned about the Badlands of Shanghai in the mid-1990s. So these things germinate, but I’d say that now I can research and write books more quickly because of the residual knowledge. It takes me around a year to get to a very rough draft these days, and another sixth months to get to a point where I would show it to my publisher. And my drafts are around 90,000 words; I try not to go over 100,000. You’ve got to give the reader just enough in terms of historical description, but not too much that they get bogged down in it.
Do you think that’s one of the biggest challenges for those approaching China – the accretion of that wealth of knowledge?
Absolutely. China is a huge country, with so many people and a long history – so the big question for anyone working on China is, where do you start? And that translates to the writing process too, especially for literary nonfiction: how much do you expect the reader to understand, and how much explaining do you need to do?
1947-48. I want to do something on that period after the war, when the Americans were supporting the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, and helping to run China. Meanwhile the Nationalists and the Communists were going at it hammer and tongs, and Shanghai was just a black market city: it wasn’t glamorous or jazz anymore, it was full of GIs wandering around cheap bars. All of the Russians and Jews were trying to get out, along with the wealthy Chinese – it was just like post-war Vienna in The Third Man, but with a thousand Harry Limes. And, inevitably, there are plenty of scandals to investigate. ∎