Fast-paced, plot-twisty true-crime tale of the kingpins of Shanghai’s Old City, land of miscreant opportunity.
The old “Terry & the Pirates” comic strip had it right: The mysterious East was just the place for an enterprising lawbreaker to homestead. So it was for a sad sack named Jack “Lucky” Riley, who changed his name after releasing himself on his own recognizance from a stateside prison. He skipped across the Pacific to the Philippines and “buddie[d] up with the Navy boys and jump[ed] a U.S. Army transport heading for Shanghai.” In his past life, Riley had boxed for the Navy, and he knew his way around a ring and a gaming table. It wasn’t long before he graduated from flophouse to better digs and began to run his own gambling empire, clashing with a tightly run syndicate of Viennese Jews headed by “Dapper” Joe Farren, whom the press styled as a kind of China-based version of Flo Ziegfield. Other figures, including tequila smuggler Carlos Garcia and New York mobster “Yasha” Katzenberg, enter and exit French’s (Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, 2012, etc.) carefully constructed stage, each one up to no good. In addition to this suspenseful yarn, the author paints a striking portrait of a Shanghai on the eve of Japanese occupation, which would bring many a crime empire to its knees. Before then, foreign governments were as keen on divvying up the spoils as the gangsters were. Even if one jurist intoned that “we will have no Chicago on the Whangpoo,” French’s hard-boiled narrative makes it clear why Chinese partisans resented the presence of the foreign barbarians, to say nothing of unfortunate collaborators like Cabbage Moh, whose head ended up on a pole “as a reminder that nobody gets to play both sides in their Shanghai.”
A Casablanca without heroes and just the thing for those who like their crime stories the darkest shade of noir.