I meet with Stephen Morrison, publisher and v-p at Picador, regularly, because we like each other and are in the same business, and when I told him about this column very early on, he had some great pitches. One that struck me immediately, and stayed with me, was City of Devils. The book is set in the Wild West (Wild East?) days of Shanghai, when it was an international city and, Morrison says, was known as “the Chicago of the East.”
I’ve got a special affection for those cities with a history of intrigue (think Casablanca, Macau, and Tangier), but they have nothing on Shanghai between the two world wars. I’m intrigued by this account of the fabled city and its infamous denizens, and by the fact that City of Devils tells a story that hasn’t yet been told.
The author, Paul French, is a Brit who lived in Shanghai for 20 years. “I came in the mid-’80s after studying Chinese at Leeds University,” he tells me. The language fascinated him. “I thought of it as a bit like code breaking, and I gravitated to Shanghai because I was always interested in art deco, and Shanghai had this amazing architecture, untouched, as though someone had thrown a dust sheet over it.” The Shanghainese, he says, were always considered clever, and the Chinese government avoided imposing its authority on the city; it was the last one to be put through reforms and, being an international city, was ripe for crime and attractive to rule breakers.
French’s star rose with his first book, Midnight in Peking, a true crime thriller about the murder of a young Englishwoman in that city in 1937. Morrison, then editor-in-chief at Penguin, bought it from Penguin Australia with Emily Murdock Baker, a young editor he had hired originally as his assistant. He left soon after, and it became Baker’s first nonfiction book. She polished the edition that had appeared in China and Australia along with U.K. editor Joel Rickett of Viking UK, and the book was published simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K. in 2012. Midnight went on to win the Edgar, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and rack up sales of 40,000 copies in the U.S., according to NPD BookScan, and more than 100,000 copies worldwide with rights sold in 12 countries. A solid success.
Both Morrison and Baker—who had left Penguin to start her own editing business, EMB Editorial, in 2015—kept in touch with French. When Morrison called Baker and asked, “If I buy French’s new book, will you edit it?” she didn’t hesitate. “We had worked together so well before,” she says. “I thought, let’s do it again.”
Morrison bought North American rights to City of Devils from Penguin Australia and, with U.K. rights sold to Jonathan Riley (editor-in-chief at Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, which will publish it in June 2018), the team was in place.
“I first heard about Paul French over five years ago from the author David Peace, who told me that he had given an endorsement to Midnight in Peking,” Riley says. “I was gripped and impressed by the book in equal measure. A couple of years later, Clare Alexander had become Paul’s agent, and I told her I would love to see what he would write next. It was City of Devils. Novelists had reimagined Shanghai of the period of the International Settlement in magnificently contrasting ways, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, so I was more than receptive to a breathtakingly researched story that reads as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai nightclub—a book about unscrupulous criminals and exiles, rootless and desperate people who could reinvent themselves in a city which encompassed all the lurid excesses and opportunities afforded by the last gasp of empire. It is brilliant.” Riley expects it will be a worthy successor to Midnight in Peking and take its place on the shelf alongside classics like White Mischief and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The editing process was a round robin of notes and revisions. French called Morrison’s edit a “forensic examination,” adding that he appreciated the demands. Baker says that “Paul is a delight to work with; it was a nice collaborative process all around.” Morrison adds that “Shanghai was a polyglot world, and we decided to keep the expressions and words in the 10 different languages and dialects of the city of the time and add a glossary—we wanted the book to be a fast read.”
French always wanted to write about Shanghai, and a story about such an enthralling city was an easy sell. Shanghai was filled with Russians who emigrated after the Bolshevik revolution, Eastern European Jews who fled the pogroms, Chinese who were trying to get away from the restrictions of their culture, and every sort of character who wanted to escape the past. “Shanghai welcomed them all,” French writes in City, “the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing.”
He started his research by reading newspapers and articles from the period, and found two characters whose rise to power and their equally spectacular downfall could tell the story of the city: Jack Riley and Joe Farron. Riley was an American orphan who escaped an Oklahoma maximum security prison where he was facing 35 years, rolled a drunk for his papers, and burned off his fingertips so he’d leave no trace of himself before jumping a freighter east to become the Slots King of Shanghai. Farron, a Jewish boy from the ghetto of Vienna, was a taxi dancer and gigolo, who, along with his wife, Nellie, created a casino empire with dance hall spectaculars. French captures the time period with sharp and relentless prose: “Dope’s one thing, but the Slots King isn’t about to let anyone else in on the one-armed bandit action. Jack makes a call, and Schmidt and some Friends go out with sledgehammers to smash up Crawley’s bogus slots. Partnership over.”
Picador’s hopes for City are high, Morrison says. “It’s one of our super lead titles of [next] summer.” The book hits all the buttons: “It will appeal to readers of true crime, history, mystery, WWII books,” he says. Cagey about numbers, Morrison would only reveal that he paid “ a goodly sum” for it. Plans are to bring French, who now lives in London, over to the U.S. to promote the book; as Baker noted about French with Midnight, “Paul is a brilliant and tireless promotor, willing to travel and keep the momentum going.” The announced first printing is 75,000, but, Morrison says, “it’s early—I expect it could easily go up.”
In addition to being published in the U.S. next year by Picador, City of Devils will also be released in Asia, Australia, and the U.K. in 2018. Penguin Australia holds foreign rights and is taking City of Devils to Frankfurt. Kudos, a U.K. film and TV production company that did the TV mystery series Broadchurch, has optioned both Midnight (slated to be a TV miniseries) and City of Devils. In the Shanghai of Devils, Kipling might be pleased to know, the twain does meet.