City of Devils: a Shanghai noir

city of devils

Shanghai of the 1930’s was a city of extremes: home to some of the richest tycoons on the planet and millions of poor Chinese laborers and their families struggling to survive on the pittances they were paid for grinding away in its docks and factories.

In the midst of the opulence and poverty was a dark demimonde comprised of scam-artists, gangsters, army deserters, prostitutes, and drug merchants from all over the world running bars, dance halls, casinos, opium dens, and brothels feeding the relentless urge for novelty among the rich and the desperate need for a momentary escape from the miseries among the poor.

City of Devils tells the story of two such adventurers who almost made it to the top before crashing back down to reality just as the Japanese took over the whole city in 1941. “Lucky” Jack Riley was a former navy boxing champion who fled back to Shanghai after making a daring escape from prison in the US and became tremendously wealthy after establishing himself as the Slot King of the city. He was so tough that he even obliterated his fingerprints with chemicals.

“Dapper” Joe Farron was an Austrian Jew who escaped the Vienna ghetto and transformed himself into the Ziegfeld of Shanghai with his spectacular dance shows and glamorous night clubs. After a bitter falling out over Jack’s betrayal of Joe in a drug smuggling racket, the two men reluctantly reunited to build the biggest casino in the badlands of Shanghai – only for their lives to fall apart just as they had reached the pinnacle.

City of Devils keeps you gripped from the start to the finish. It’s written in the fast-paced style of a noir detective novel and brings the opulence and squalor of 1930’s Shanghai vividly to life with a remarkable attention to historical detail and brilliant portrayals not just of the two major protagonists but the rich supporting cast of characters including my own personal favorite “Evil Evelyn.”

I can’t recommend City of Devils highly enough. It provides the best account that I’ve ever read of what life was like in Old Shanghai.

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