The Devil’s In the Details

Lisa Brackmann reviews City of Devils by Paul French

For the first third of Paul French’s latest nonfiction book set in historical China, I felt guilty for enjoying it as much as I did. There are few places more romanticized in the Western imagination than pre-WWII Shanghai, and City Of Devils plays into those tropes: exotic, corrupt Shanghai, “home to hopeful souls from several dozen nations joined together by one simple guiding ethos: money and the getting of it.” It is a portrait of a city filled with gamblers, soldiers-of-fortune and opium dens. Its occupants include “White Russian women of dubious occupation,” “dead-eyed Eurasian Macanese” and “hard-working Filipinas and Formosans” plying their trade in the flops and whorehouses of Blood Alley.

City Of Devils focuses on two Westerners who have come to Shanghai to prosper and to escape: dapper Joe Farren, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Europe whose nightclubs and performing troupes earned him the nickname “the Ziegfeld of Shanghai” (after the Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld), and American fugitive Jack Riley, the “Slots King” making his fortune with his fists, his smarts, and a pair of loaded dice.