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‘City of Devils’ review: Reliving the heady days of gangster land Shanghai

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

The space was bare. Except for a dirty mattress, there was no furniture. Bugs were crawling on the walls, the chamber pot reeked. Unshaved, unwashed and alone, Jack Riley had only a few benzedrine pills left to feed his addiction. Soon, he would be out and the trembling would start again. Perhaps for the first time, he felt desperate.

City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir, by Paul French.
288 pages
RIVERRUN, Nonfiction.

Outside, chaos reigned. Through the broken windows of his dingy room in the lawless no man’s land just west of Shanghai’s International Settlement, Riley could see the Kempeitai, the Imperial Japanese Army’s dreaded military police, patrolling the streets with their Chinese counterparts. He could hear Japanese snipers taking down targets from the rooftops of neighboring buildings. Moving would be difficult; leaving the building, deadly.

He did not even have the chance to try. At first, the wailing of sirens was faint, but it grew louder as the cars got closer. Tires screeched, doors opened, weapons were cocked. From where he lay, Riley could hear police officers barking orders while others ran up the stairs. In no time, they were banging on his door. After years of criminal activity, his luck had run out. The day was March 28, 1941.

Few remember Jack Riley and perhaps even fewer can recall Joe Farren, his Vienna-born erstwhile Jewish partner. But in the Shanghai of the 1930s, says Paul French, author of “City of Devils,” they were household names. For more than a decade, Riley had been one of the city’s most daring and flamboyant mobsters, a kingpin of its underworld, a local rogue “always in and out of the papers,” while Farren, a dapper dresser, famed dancer and notorious womanizer, had made his reputation producing popular chorus lines across the Far East. In 1939, oblivious to the war engulfing the region, they partnered to set up Farren’s which, for a short while, and despite the surrounding mayhem, was Shanghai’s most prosperous nightclub and casino. “City of Devils” is their story.

For British author French, this is familiar territory. For almost a decade now, he has been delving into archives, researching the unsavory influence of Westerners in early 20th-century China, most famously in “Midnight in Peking,” a brilliant murder mystery soon to be made into a TV series. In his latest opus, French tells the story of a colorful cast of Shanghai misfits with his customary verve and flair.

Riley’s legal problems began long before the spring of 1941. In 1923, after a five-year stint with the U.S. Navy, spent mostly in Manila and on patrol boats on the Yangtze, Riley returned home to Oklahoma. He found a job as a cab driver, but willy-nilly got involved in a kidnapping that landed him a 35-year jail sentence. In the first instance of what turned out to be a long streak of amazing luck, he managed to escape his bonds.

To avoid future identification, he burned his fingertips with acid, adopted a new name — Jack Riley — and fled the country. When he landed on the Chinese coast in 1930, he was already on the lam.

In Shanghai, Riley naturally drifted toward the city’s demimonde. True to form, his first business venture was to run a dive bar, the Manhattan, which he won playing dice. Drawing on his contacts in the U.S. Navy and by bribing pliant sergeants, Riley began smuggling slot machines on government supply ships — later, he shipped drugs to the U.S. the same way. He put some of the machines in his bar, but rented out the vast majority, taking a large share of the profit. Soon, every nightclub, tavern and speakeasy had them installed. By the end of 1933, French writes, Riley was widely known as the “Slot King of Shanghai.” The good times had begun. They would last for years.

Things started to go south in August 1937, when the Imperial Japanese Army launched a full-scale invasion of the lower Yangtze. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Shanghai’s International Settlement and the French Concession. Though both remained independent and outside of Tokyo’s direct control, the overall atmosphere worsened, in no small part thanks to the unrestrained policies of Maj. Gen. Kenji Doihara, a notorious opium addict dispatched from Manchuria to take command of the area.

To sap the will of the people, Doihara encouraged drug trafficking, prostitution and a gamut of other crimes and vices. A city already notorious for its illicit pleasures sank even deeper into lawlessness and villainy.

Still, there was plenty of money to be made. When Riley and Farren opened their casino in 1939, they chose a location in Shanghai’s Badlands, a legal gray zone where, in practice, neither Japanese, French nor British writ fully applied. It was hard though: They had to pay protection money to the Japanese, thumb their nose almost daily at aggressive Kempeitai officers, work around a city-wide curfew and scourge the black market for increasingly rare supplies.

It worked for a while, but early in 1941 the law caught up with Riley, and the day after Pearl Harbor, Farren, his name on a Japanese black list, was arrested and tortured. Three days later, he was dead.

French has always been drawn to “the flotsam and jetsam, the impoverished emigres and stranded refugees, transient ne’er-do-wells and washed up chancers, con men and female grifters,” those who survive on the fringes of society, forgotten or ignored by history. In “City of Devils,” he gives them their due.