To imagine the Shanghai of the 1930s is to frame art-deco frontages on chiaroscuro streets, behind which noirish figures from a polyglot demi-monde sip whiskies and soda. The city in this era has an imaginative power in the Western mind beyond that of any other place in China, fuelled by an intoxicating cocktail of equal measures myth and reality. Paul French, a long-time resident of the city, now returned to London, offers two complimentary portraits of the place and those westerners pulled inexorably toward it in his new books, City of Devils and Destination Shanghai.
For the lurid characters who populate the pages of City of Devils, Shanghai was a place to escape the past; to slough their skin and begin again. The story it tells is oriented around two contrasting characters: Josef Pollak, an Austrian Jew from the ghetto of Vienna, who reinvents himself as a ballroom dancer named Joe Farren, and Jack Riley, a man of more dubious origins who was “probably born in a Colorado logging camp near Manitou Springs in 1897” as Fahnie Albert Becker. John Becker, as he becomes known, ends up sentenced to thirty-five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for kidnapping, but manages to slip from custody: he heads for San Francisco, burns his fingerprints off with acid, re-christens himself once more as Jack Riley and sets sail across the Pacific. Inevitably, he winds up in Shanghai, where he and Joe will rise in synchronicity: sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.
As in all good noirs, however, no one is granted a happy ending, and French leaves us mourning not only his protagonists, but also the city which has been their playground: in December 1941, the Japanese occupy the foreign concessions and “as quickly as a puff of blue smoke from an opium pipe”, old Shanghai is gone.
French is steeped in stories of old Shanghai: a large part of the book’s joy is in its detail.
The premise of City of Devils feels indistinguishable from that of a novel, but this is narrative non-fiction; French is up-front in his preface that, though historical accuracy has been his watchword, “assumptions have been made” where information is missing. For those interested in the strict record, he points the reader to Frederic Wakeman’s academic books on crime in Shanghai, among others, but in City of Devils the history serves the narrative.
French is steeped in stories of old Shanghai, and his understanding of the time and period allows him to build a fully-realized world around his compelling characters. A large part of the book’s joy is in its detail: the fashion, the drinks, the drugs, the cars, the bars, the slang. French writes in a present-tense heavy, hard-boiled prose which consciously alludes to the crime novels of James Ellroy, peppering his description and dialogue with the patois of the time.
The breadth of French’s research into the world of Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century is also conspicuously evident in Destination Shanghai, a collection of eighteen biographical essays which catalogue the visits of a range of foreigners to the city. These range from stars of the screen, such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, to writers like André Malraux, Arthur Ransome and Langston Hughes, and oddballs such as the English occultist (and amateur mountaineer) Aleister Crowley.
Perhaps most compelling are those who French drags back from relative obscurity, such as the actor Warner Oland—a Swedish American who ended up playing a Hawaiian Chinese detective: Charlie Chan. Oland was a big star in the 1930s, both in America and Ch: Lu Xun apparently never missed a screening of a new Chan movie.When Oland arrived in Shanghai aboard a steamship, he told the waiting press how happy he was to be visiting the land of his ancestors.
The motivations of those who traveled in search of Destination Shanghai were diverse, and their experiences distinct; the pieces coalesce however to form an esoteric, scholarly and enjoyable portrait of the city and a miscellaneous cast of its storied visitors.
French’s last book, Midnight in Peking, was such a success that it has spawned a number of spin-off enterprises: a TV series is in the works, and in the meantime one can take part in a walking tour of the Beijing streets on which the events which it recounts, that of the murder of nineteen year old Pamela Werner, took place.
Graeme Sheppard’s A Death in Peking is another addition to this mini-industry. Sheppard’s book promises a different answer to the question of who really killed Werner, who was found, disfigured and eviscerated near the Beiping city wall on a January morning in 1937, and the author has trawled through a range of archives in search of evidence.
Sheppard takes issue with the approach to the investigation taken in Midnight in Peking, questioning in particular the reliability of evidence provided by the papers of ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. Sheppard does propose an alternative theory; though, at this point, and with the police records no longer extant, it remains impossible to prove beyond speculation.
Sheppard’s book forms a contrast in style to Midnight in Peking, with its author—a retired police officer—approaching the subject with a rigor that often borders on the exhausting: we learn the biography and backstory of each suspect, no matter how likely their involvement, and a number of the reports included are presented unexpurgated, making the book feel at times like a sourcebook.
A Death in Peking ultimately provokes broader questions for the reader than it those it seeks to answer. Why, when the case can never be closed to anyone’s satisfaction, does this story still matter? For French, the case offered a vehicle for a literary exploration of the darker side of life in and around Peking’s Legation Quarter; it was also an unabashed page turner. Absent this narrative drive and purpose, the story becomes a curiosity shop of second-hand observations and theories about a case that, had Pamela Werner been Chinese rather than Caucasian, no one now would even remember.