Posts tagged: Paul French

Book Review: Paul French’s City of Devils

By , September 27, 2018

Paul French, the author of the acclaimed true crime book Midnight in Peking is finally back.  It’s the 1930s again, Japan is on the march, brutally invading China, but in City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, French’s thrilling new book, the foreigners who occupy Shanghai’s International Settlement could care less.  As China burns and the rest of the world goes to war, these “Shanghailanders” frolic in neon-lighted nightclubs, gamble their immense wealth at the newest roulette tables, and drink and smoke opium till their hearts content.  Their frivolous lifestyle propped up by a seedy network of gangsters, ex-cons and grifters.

City of Devils follows the two most influential characters of that underworld – “Dapper” Joe Farren, a.k.a. Josef Pollack, a Jewish-Viennese émigré who uses his dance skills and panache to set up some of the Settlement’s best music and dance acts, and “Lucky” Jack Riley, a.k.a. Fahnie Albert Becker, an American ex-con, who escaped prison, and with no passport, papers or identity, fled to the only city that would take him: Shanghai.  Starting with nothing when they arrive in the late 1920s, the two would build an empire of sin, Farren with the night acts and Riley with slot machines, the one gambling device that was not declared illegal in the Settlement, very much an oversight of the law.  In the clipped speech patterns of a 1920s gangster film, French recounts Farren and Riley’s decade-long rise and their unique business methods, methods that would eventually catch the eye of the United States government.

Meticulously researched and eloquently written, French captures the feel of the time period and the lawlessness that seemed to flourish in Shanghai’s International Settlement, especially after the Japanese takeover of Shanghai in 1937.  The Japanese did not invade the International Settlement or the French Concession when they took Shanghai, allowing the foreigners to go on living their lives as if nothing was different.  But for many Shanghailanders, the writing was on the wall with Japan’s continuous advancement in China.  Those Westerns who could get out of Shanghai, did.  By late 1937, early 1938, the only foreigners left in Shanghai or those who had no choice – Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, earlier Jewish émigré like Farren who can’t go back to Europe, White Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution, people like Riley with a crime record so long, that arrival back to the United States would only mean prison, and businessmen and their families whose finances were so entwined with Shanghai that leaving did not seem possible.

It is with 1937 that French’s story really peaks, with Riley, Farren and a slew of other colorful characters all but running the International Settlement.  Because of an increase in opium smuggling to the United States, the U.S. government sends over government agents to try to break up some of the criminal gangs.  But their limited resources are no match for the wealth of the underworld.  Nor for a society that seems more intent on protecting the Rileys and the Farrens of Shanghai so that their evening entertainment can continue unabated.

Young Victim of the Battle of Shanghai

But while many of French’s characters are blissfully ignorant of the world outside of the Settlement, French is emphatically not.  At no point does he allow the reader to forget the human suffering brought upon the Chinese people with the ruthless advancement of the Japanese army.  Only a few months after the fall of Chinese Shanghai comes the rape of Nanjing, an orgy of violence perpetuated on a civilian population, the scale of which the world had not seen before.  But the Battle of Shanghai, considered one of the bloodiest battles of the war, also reaped destruction, taking the lives of over 300,000 Chinese citizens.  And even after that battle, the Chinese continued to suffer.  While the Shanghailanders of the International Settlement sip their imported champagne, Chinese citizens were starving to death, collapsing and dying in streets by the truckload.  Often their bodies just left to rot.  In a particularly harrowing detail, French describe the hundreds of coffins filling up local coffin storage building, with the hope that the burials will occur before the spring when the bodies begin to thaw.  It is that contrast in experiences that leads to the reader’s ultimate disgust with the Shanghailanders.  Eventually history would catch up with them, with the Japanese invading the International Settlement almost immediately with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

French does an amazing job of describing the Shanghai of the 1930s, a brief time period that has been romanticized by many, but that French looks at with a more honest eye.  It is true that French takes many liberties and embellishments with the private thoughts and conversations of many of his characters – the real people who did exist – and that has opened him to some criticism.  But that is the genre that French has created – a novel-like feel based on true facts.  Facts that French acquired through years of researching the archives of the International Settlement, of the foreign police in Shanghai and the various foreign courts (see French’s recent interview on the Sinica podcast for more detail on his research).  Certainly the criticism is fair, and perhaps a bibliography listing the sources French used could have been informative as well as interesting.  And it might have been better to put the glossary of Chinese and other foreign words at the front of the book to help those not familiar with the words.  But other than, this is a fun read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, by Paul French (Picador, 2018), 246 pages.

Book Review: Paul French’s Midnight in Peking

Paul French describes his gripping new book, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, as a belated quest to bring justice to a young woman, brutally murdered 75 years ago in Beijing.  But the story is equally as applicable to the present, highlighting that our criminal justice system — and with the case of Bo Xilai, China’s criminal justice system — can easily fall victim to political agendas, singularly-focused investigations, and prejudices about who can and cannot commit a crime.

Midnight in Peking opens on a dark, cold morning in January 1937, in the dying days of old Beijing.  A young white woman’s mutilated body is found near the haunted fox tower by an old Chinese man who is up early walking his caged bird.  The body turns out to be that of 19 year old Pamela Werner, daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former high-ranking British diplomat, China scholar, and single father who raised his daughter outside of the gated-off, foreign Legation Quarter of Beijing.

On the eve of the Japanese invasion, it was a murder that distracted Beijing as much as it obsessed it.  And rightfully so.  For the murder, and French’s amazingly detailed account of it, uncovers the debaucheries of some of foreign Beijing’s most elite, a young girl experimenting as a woman, and the official cover up that followed.  On the eve of World War II, there was no way that British officials would allow the Empire and its respectability to lose face, even if it meant short-changing a police investigation and letting a diabolic murderer to go free.

Pamela Werner becoming a woman - taken a few days before her murder.

French’s talent lies in his ability to transport the reader back to 1937 Beijing, back to the Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits, back to the Badlands where seedy expat Beijing lead much of its life but rarely talked about it within the Legation Quarter.  French also makes the characters come alive – with his seven years of painstaking research into the official criminal investigation and Pamela’s father’s own inquiry, French knows what each of the characters were doing, writing and saying at the time.

Midnight in Peking is known as a work of “literary non-fiction,” presenting the facts almost as a novel but unable to take any of the liberties that a work of fiction could permit.  In reality though, the work has more of the drama of a good closing argument – a winning closing argument – presenting the facts,debunking the police’s simplistic conclusions (including that it was a Chinese who did it; who else would kill and mutilate a body), and thoroughly presenting a stronger theory of who did it, a theory that the reader eventually adopts.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable read, a page turner that kept me in one Friday night just to find out who did it.  But it is not just a story about the past.  Sitting there, reading  about a British murder investigation in China and seeing the prejudices that the police held about certain incidents, particular people and specific facts, made me think of the recent re-examination of the 1979 Etan Patz kidnapping case that is currently transfixing New York City.  In that case, it appears that the police misjudged suspects and had a singular focus on a specific interpretation of the facts, even with little facts to back that up.  Some 50 years after the Pamela Werner murder, police in New York City were making the same mistakes.  Fast forward 33 years to today and most likely these same types of mistakes are still being made.

But more than anything, the book also demonstrates the susceptibility of any criminal justice system to power and politics.  E.T.C. Werner was an outsider to British expat society of 1937, and not just because he chose to live outside of the Legation Quarter.  That pissed people off and when it came time to investigate the murder of his daughter, Werner, as an outsider, became a suspect.  The murderers that French eventually uncover were not just accepted in British society but considered the elites of Beijing.  That acceptance – and the fact that the British diplomats didn’t want a scandal on their hands – allowed them to live their lives as free men.  Ultimately politics – both individual as well as national – proved more important than justice.  Even when Werner conducted his own investigation and uncovered many of the lies of key suspects, British diplomats continued to ignore his pleas for justice for his daughter.

Not surprisingly, when reading French’s book, the Bo Xilai case – where Bo’s wife is accused of murdering a British national – was not far from

An old ETC Werner, around the time of his daughter's murder

my mind.  Given the politics involved in that case and the fact that perhaps Bo became an outsider to the Party system, it makes one wonder about the accuracy of the story that the Chinese government is currently presenting to the press.  If it could happen in British Peking in 1937, it can certainly happen in Chinese Beijing in 2012.  Likely, no criminal justice system is immune to political pressure.  It would be foolish – and dangerous – to think that any system is impervious.

Midnight in Peking is a remarkable story, wonderfully written and with characters that just come to life – some you love, some you hate and some you just despise.  For those who want to be transported to the past, Midnight in Peking is your ticket there; but for those who want to understand the present, more precisely the mistakes inherent in any criminal justice system, Midnight in Peking will take you there.  Whichever trip you decide to make, French will take you on a fun ride.

Rating: ★★★★½

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French (Penguin Books, 2012), 272 pages.

French also has a great website about the book, including his own explanation as to what propelled him to write the book and a walking tour of Pamela’s Beijing (with downloadable podcasts). For anyone who does the walking tour, I would be interested in you take of it. Please comment below!

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