“Death in Shanghai” by MJ Lee

I have read a number of novels taking place in Old Shanghai, but for some reason I missed MJ Lee’s “Death in Shanghai” until now. It is amazing I did not get to read it before, having been interested in both crime novels and Old Shanghai for a long time.

Original cover for “Death in Shanghai”

Piotr Danilov is the only foreign inspector in the Shanghai International Settlement’s Police Dept. Being Russian, he spent time in Scotland Yard, hence his excellent command of English. He also speaks French although where or how he learned is not clear. This conveniently helps him being sent to discuss with the French concession police when required. As a hard working cop, he is very much isolated among his moslty lazy, violent and corrupt British colleagues. Danilov also has his dark past that will be uncovered through the novel. Danilov’s sidekick, Strachan, is also an outsider being born of a British father and a Chinese mother and not being part of any of those communities.

The book starts with a corp discovered in the Suzhou Creek with inspector Danilov being put in charge of the investigation. The police hierarchy wants a quick found convict, but soon more murders will be linked to this one, both in the International Settlement and the French Concession. The books plot is complex but not overly so, making it a fluid read.

The main character of the book is not a person, but a city. MJ Lee has lived in Shanghai and definitely used historical documentation to write his novel. The city description is not limited to its buildings but also includes scents, food tastes and sounds giving a lot of atmosphere to the story. It is mostly accurate in its geography of the city giving a lot of credibility to it from an Old Shanghai enthusiast point of view. One of the twists of the story actualy comes from the Garden Bridge on the Suzhou Creek and the Shanghai Morgue, inside the Shanghai General Hospital, being located close to each other. Although the book has been historicaly researched, the novel does not become a show of the author’s knowledge of Old Shanghai like other ones I have read before. The story reads easily even if the reader knows nothing about Old Shanghai.

As an Old Shanghai researcher I could not avoid picking a few anachronisms. As an exemple, the author mentions “Art Deco” buildings and jewelery in 1928, when the term “Art Deco” was only coined in the 1950s or 1960s (see post “1925 when art deco dazzled the World“) . Another point is the mention of the “Shanghai Badlands” in 1928, an area that became known under this name only after 1937 Japanese occupation. I also noticed a small mistake in the French dialogs when a gard at the French police was called a “fonctionnaire”, meaning civil servant which sounds pretty weird in the story. The author surely meant a “factionnaire”, meaning a “soldier on duty”. This also shows that the author probably speaks French himself, as the French dialogues are very good in the book.

With its historical accuracy, its interesting plot and good writing style, “Death in Shanghai” is definitely a great read and a good introduction to Old Shanghai. I am looking forward to read the three other novels in the series. Having lived in the Shanghai at the same time as the author, I can only regret that we did not meet then as we would have had a number of common interests.

For those mosty interested in crime novel in new Shanghai, I can only recommend the famous Inspector Chen series from author Qiu Xiaolong (See post Red Mandarin dress for more details).

Meanwhile in Berlin

Summer time is perfect for book reading. Crime novels have been one my long term favorite and I have read a number of them taking place in Old Shanghai (see https://shanghailander.net/tag/crime-novel/ for more details). A few years ago, I wrote about the parallels between Old Shanghai and early 1940s LA in James Ellroy’s “Perfidia” as well as Roman Polanski’s movie “Chinatown” . This time, the trip is to 1929 Berlin, with Volker Kutscher’s “Der nasse Fisch”.

photo credit: wortgestalt-buchblog.de

End of 1920s Berlin was definitely a rough and happening place. The consequence of WW1 defeat and a weak government overwhelmed by powerful militias on both side of the political spectrum created instability but also a kind of free for all atmosphere that was really special. Like in other European countries, the 1920s were crazy years where everything was possible, but Germany definitely had a much darker version. This clearly resonate with Old Shanghai feeling of lawlessness created by the 3 sectors, International Settlement, French Concession and Chinese city, with gangsters being able to easily escape the law from the one to the other. In Berlin, like in Shanghai, the police was often less busy running after gangsters than chasing political opponents, in particular communists.

Like Shanghai, cabarets and dancing halls were plenty

This created a background where life was to be enjoyed today as none really believed in tomorrow. Late 1920s Germany was time of new thoughts and new arts, at the same time that Haipai style developed in Shanghai (one of the main current was Bauhaus that later influenced Shanghai architecture). Young people were eager to turn the page of the previous generation and jumped into new Western or American culture. Movies where widely popular and movie industry both developed in Shanghai and in Berlin (Fritz Lang Metropolis is a great exemple). Both Shanghai and Berlin’s scene were taken over by Jazz music, dancings clubs and cabarets (called Varieté in German). Those with money could party like no tomorrow in these new king of places. This also had a dark side in both cities, with rampant drug use, prostitution and criminal organizations.

Berlin, late 1920s

In both cities, this short period did not last long, as the rise of Hitler in 1933 put a brutal close to it in Berlin, while in Shanghai, the party was shut down by 1937 Japanese invasion. When WWII was over, both Shanghai and Berlin could never go back to these golden ages as the World had totally changed. Destruction of large parts of the city by bombings and partition into East and West meant that Berlin was never the same. The short but intense period created a myth around both cities at the time, that still remains until today, inspiring generations of authors including myself.

Der Nasse Fisch TV series

Der Nasse Fish is a great novel capturing the atmosphere of the area, while keeping the reader turning page after page. Main character Gereon Rath moving to Berlin in early 1929 to join the Berlin criminal police. The story is very well documented and has many twists and a very enjoyable read. It has translated in many languages and has been turned into successful TV series “Babylon Berlin”. I have yet to find an Old Shanghai crime novel that combines in-depth research, recreation of the right atmosphere and a page turner at the same time. It also helped me to do something I did not do for more than than 25 years, namely read again a full novel in the original German version.

Le musical-hall des espions

French journalist Bruno Birolli was stationed in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Beijing for more than 23 years. After two non-fictions book about Asia history, he published “Le musical-hall des espions” in France in 2017. I have read and written about quite a number of Old Shanghai novels like The master of rain” or “Night in Shanghai“, as well a Paul French book on Shanghai Gangsters, City of devils. Since I also love reading crime novels, one taking place in Old Shanghai could only attract my attention.

Book cover

Birolli novel’s title, ” Le music-hall des espions”, could be best translated as “Theater of spies”. The novels takes place from 1930 to 1932 and focuses on French man René Desfossées, who is sent to political unit of the Shanghai French Concession Police. Main characters include his boss, Commandant Léo Fiorini along with Archibald Swindown, a colleague from the International Settlement police. As historical events unfold in Shanghai, their police work will make them meet various people including the chief of police for the Kuomingtang government, other members of the French police, a magician, and many more. The action is mainly located in Shanghai, the city could be considered also as one of the main characters, along with a short part in Hankou’s French Concession.

The author has spent years in Asia and it definitely shows in the book. I often found that Old Shanghai novels lack the climate, noise and smells of the city. They are all here. The dampness of the city after the rain, cold waves that freeze it a few days a year and other mentions of the city’s weather just feel like the real thing. Neither are missing the smell of Chinese food or of coal burning, the noise of people shouting in the streets and the honks of cars, giving a vivid portrait of the city.

Birolli’s interest in early 20th century’s Asian history and journalistic experience is also showing. This makes his version of Old Shanghai very accurate, taking into account the time of constructions of various roads and buildings. Actual historical events are developing in the background and are fully integrated in the story. One can also find numerous references to real history characters of the time, the most obvious one being the Commandant Fiorini, whose name is a direct reference to the real Captain Etienne Fiori who ran the French Concession police from 1920 to 1932. Characters have deep personality and there own history influences their actions and decisions in a very realistic way. Probably a little more explanations would be welcome by readers unfamiliar with the settings and Shanghai history, but the novel is making it a very enjoyable trip to Old Shanghai.

The real Capitaine Fiori receiving a medal

Although the background, historical events and characters are very credible, the books feels sometimes more like a photograph of an era, than a real crime novel. Having read many of those, I was expecting more speed in the story as well as a more sophisticated intrigue. Writing style is still very journalistic, as opposed the punch that one could expect from great noir novels, like “Perfidia” by James Ellroy or an historical spy novel like “Carnival of Spies” by Robert Moss.

In any case, I enjoyed reading the book and it highly recommended to anybody interested in Shanghai history. Unfortunately, it is only available in French so far.

City of devils, a Shanghai Noir

British author Paul French has lived in Shanghai for many years, and is vastly knowledgeable about Old Shanghai. Known for his in-depth research, he is also the author of The Old Shanghai A-Z , a reference book for anyone researching Shanghai history. French turning to crime solving inquiry in previous book Midnight in Peking, turned to be really interesting. Being passionate of both crime novels and Old Shanghai, I could only be interested in his new book, City of Devils, a Shanghai Noir.

Just like Midnight in Peking, City of Devils is not a novel. French takes a character that attracts his interest and research it in all directions possible. City of Devils is the story two characters of the Shanghai underworld. Jack Riley was the king of the slot machines in Shanghai, while Joe Farren was running entertainment shows at the top places like the Canidrome ballroom and the Paramount. Their course in Shanghai crime met numerous times, while they became allied, fell out and got in business again. The stories of both characters is really fascinating, showing the opportunities and the lawlessness of Shanghai in that period.

Little was known about the two central characters before French started his research. Information from a great many different sources have been put together, starting the local press of the time, North-China Daily News, JB Powell’s China Weekly Review and (never heard of before) blackmailing newspaper Shopping News. Although the book does not include a bibliography, they are references to many books about the period or written by people who lived through it, including Ralph Shaw’s Sin City, Bernard Wasserstein’s secret war in Shanghai, Frederic’s Wakeman The Shanghai Badlands and many more. He also search the official records from the Shanghai Municipal police, and other Shanghai institutions as well as archives from foreign countries consulates that are stored in their home country. A number of well known Shanghai researchers have also contributed sometimes unpublished information that have been incorporated the book, including Prof Robert Bickers, Russian researcher Katya Knyazeva and many more authors on the topic. The amount of information and the number of sources is quite extraordinary. Researching this books must have been like a real police inquiry, with attention to all possible details.

Beside those larger than life characters, the most interesting part is the description of Shanghai foreign underworld including numerous people or location that are mentioned in books of the period but on which little was known. This creates a great picture of the darker side of Shanghai that mixes well with French detailed knowledge. From the known facts he create an entertaining story, by bridging the missing parts with very plausible and well informed details. City of Devils is an entertaining read about a side of Shanghai that is lesser known. It is also a very deep research that is presented in a very entertaining way.

Midnight in Peking

Book cover in Australian edition
Book cover in Australian edition

Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.

The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.

As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.

Where the body was found
Where the body was found

The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.

Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.


Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.

Parallels between Old Shanghai and LA in the 1930s can also be found in Roman Polanski’s movie”Chinatown“. Another city that remains me of Old Shanghai for its mix of party, corruption and “everything goes” atmosphere in the same period was Berlin, see post “Meanwhile in Berlin” for more on this topic.

Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai book cover
Book cover

Historical novels are a great way to get transported to the past. I have not had much time for my own research about Old Shanghai recently, but I still can find time for reading books about it. Having read a number of novels about Old Shanghai, like “The master of rain” or “Last seen in Shanghai”, “Night in Shanghai”was soon as on my list.

The novel takes an original point of view from the start as the main character is black American jazz player Thomas Greene, who ends up playing in the Royal, one of the Shanghai dance club. Jazz was the music of Old Shanghai and the city had many jazz bands. The most famous were brought from the USA, recruited by agents and sent all the way to China to play in the large ball rooms such as the Canidrome in the French Concession or the Paramount in the International Settlement. The story of these jazz band players has often been overlooked, making the novel stand out by choosing this main character.

Nicole Mones is a specialist on China and has clearly spent a lot of research on Old Shanghai. Historical facts are accurate and many secondary characters in the story were actual people. The book is the a great way to discover little known Russian composer “Aaron Avshalomov”, British envoy to help fixing China’s economy “Sir Frederick Leith-Ross” and many more. Old Shanghai nightlife is really well rendered, as well as the darkening atmosphere on the city coming with the Japanese invasion. Secondary characters, including crime lord Du Yuesheng are also coming to life in a very credible way.

Unfortunately, historical facts and characters often seem to have been added as matter of teaching the reader with little connection to the actual story. The flow of the novel is regularly obstructed by side plots and details that were surely very enjoyable to research and write about but add little to the action. In a same fashion, food and music are described in great details, but lacking explanation, feeling or taste. Moreover, characters tend to explain to each other points that would have been obvious for them in the historical context, seemingly as an explanation to the reader, making them sometimes really weird.

The central line of the novel, the love story between Thomas Greene and Song Yuhua seems over simplistic and not really believable. Characters regularly get an easy escape from trouble, and seem to be passing through dreadful events such as war and crimes without being really affected by them. Although I enjoy the historical research a lot, I have to admit that the story telling does not match it. Readers interested in Shanghai history will surely enjoy it, but other may be disappointed by the lack of depth and feeling of the novel.

The last tycoon

This new movie about Old Shanghai attracted a lot of attention and a large media campaign. With a line of stars including Chow Yun-Fat and a massive budget, it was one of the high profile movies of the end of last year. This is not the first movie about Old Shanghai that I have seen, but it is definitely one of the best.
Last Tycoon poster
Last Tycoon poster

It is clear that a lot of attention was given to the decor and costumes. A number of the scenes were filmed in real Old Shanghai properties, with many antique objects and furniture used in the back ground. This contributed a lot to the atmosphere of the movie and it really does feel right. This is surely the best effort for a Chinese movie ever. The main outdoor scenes were filmed at Shanghai Cinema Studio (see post on this topic), particularly the ones a taking place on Nanking Road, as well as the ones taking place over an iron bridge (supposedly) over Suzhou Creek (the brigde is a copy of the original one, located in the Cinema studio).

Bridge in Shanghai Cinema Studio
Bridge in Shanghai Cinema Studio

The movie is clearly linked to 1980’s Hong Kong TV series “The Bund”, taking place in Old Shanghai, that started the acting career of Chow Yung-Fat. The story is loosely based on the life of most famous Shanghai Mobster Du Yue Shen, although it often departs from historical facts. Like it’s inspiration, the main character is an humble boy in countryside China, who climb through the criminal organisation to become the leader of Shanghai gangster. The movie adds to it number sub-plots, including gangster warfare and romance. Like some of the American movies about Chicago gangster, it creates quite an romantic and legendary image of them, forgetting in the meantime that their fabulous wealth mostly came from crime, kidnapping, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Special effects and war scenes
Special effects and war scenes

The movie includes many special effects, in particular in all the warfare scenes. They really help to recreate the vision and feeling of Shanghai during the Chinese / Japanese war, including the devastation of bombs falling in Shanghai streets. Fight scenes are very vivid, sometimes brutal, depicting fights, injuries and death in graphic details. It is probably the most graphic movie I have seen about Old Shanghai, but this also makes it one of the most realistic. The movie also manages to escape talking too much about politics then which is a good think. Unfortunately, it also pictures the main Kuomintang official as a traitor to the Japanese enemy which is far from historical truth.

Finally, it was really weird to have one of the scene taking place in a winery, as it is clear there was no such a thing in China in that period. It is somehow weird to have spent all this attention to make a movie that has the right feeling, but stumble on such a clear mistake. For real historic information about wine in Old Shanghai, go to post “French wines in Old Shanghai“. In any case, this does impact so much on the whole story, nor distract from viewing this very good movie about Old Shanghai. To been seen in an Old Shanghai Art Deco theater for best atmosphere.

Other movies about Old Shanghai include “天堂口 / Paradise“, “Shanghai, the movie” and “Lust Caution“. TV series include “Shanghai Shanghai” and “繁花 Shanghai blossoms“.

Last seen in Shanghai

Book cover
Book cover

Crime novels are definitely one of my favorite literary genre, including classics as Raymond Chandler, moderns James Ellroy and contemporaries such as French author Ayerdhal. When the action takes place in a historical background, this is even more interesting. Favorites include include Boris Akunin’s “Erast Fandorin” series as well a Qiu Xiao Long “Inspector Chen” series (see link to post about “Red Mandarin dress“). It is of no surprise to the reader that my very preferred combination is a crime novel taking place in Old Shanghai. I have already written a post about “The Master of Rain” by Tom Brady. I recently found another one “Last seen in Shanghai”, by Howard Turk.

The story takes place in Shanghai in spring 1925, at the time of the May 30th incident, that saw a the British police firing on a crowd of Chinese demonstrator at the Louza station in the International Settlement (see the following link to Wikipedia’s article about May 30th movement). Since this period of time was crucial for China, it creates an excellent background for the story and the introductory scene. The main plot is focused on the murder of prime Chinese businessman Yang researched by Jake Greenberg, his old business partner. Running a casino, has an unclear past that will be revealed throughout the book (this is somewhat similar to Casablanca’s Rick). He is helped by his girlfriend Claire Turner, a reporter at the most important English newspaper in the city whose niece Jane has also been killed with Yang.

The story is quite interesting, bringing surprises along the way as well as meetings with a few famous people such as (then) undercover Shanghai communist leader Zhou En Lai. The author clearly knows about China history and integrates it into his writings. The interactions between several factions at play in China at that time are well described. The main character is an old China hand (a bit of a shadier version of Carl Crow), with quite a different attitude toward China from the main character of the “Master of Rain” and the whole foreigners-Chinese relationship is an important part of the story. The character of Claire Turner is surely inspired by Emily Hahn and other female journalists of the time. The plot is good and some of the characters have the right kind of background and behavior.

Unfortunately, the research about Shanghai itself is much thiner.  It is disappointing to see that a number of historical details about the city are wrong, or just invented when they actually existed. Although right in the big picture, streetnames, locations and characters often lack precision when they claim for historical accuracy. It definitely feels like the author did not study much abouth old Shanghai itself apart from a few guidelines. Similarly, the use of some Cantonese worlds… where they should be Chinese, or even better Shanghainese does not help to make the story believable.

More importantly, the reader often feels like seeing the story from the outside, while never really being involved in it. The lack of description and scenery does not help either to become part of the story, particularly when the actual background is right the reader’s doorstep. Characters often lack depth and the pace of the book is not always well balance.Action scenes do not always feel real and atmospheric scene definitely lack depth and reality to them.

All in all, “Last Seen in Shanghai” is not bad to read but it is not the page turner that it could have been and definitely lacks depth in historical research. Although the book was published a few years ago, it does not seem to have attracted much publicity.

Red Mandarin dress

This is the fifth novel of inspector Chen. I read the four others last year, after having seen Qiu Xiaolong speaking at the Shanghai Literary festival. The other novels were really enjoyable, so I could not wait to read this one. At first, it seemed just like another inspector Chen novel. Another young chinese girl killed in strange circumstances in Shanghai in the late nineties. Once again, the novel start with a crime that inspector Chen has to solve… this sounds very much like every one of the inspector Chen novels. But this one deviates from the normal course really fast as the killer starts again one week later. Putting the corpses in very visible location (first on Dong Hu lu / Huai Hai lu), on People Square the murderer is sure to create heavy publicity for himself… just at the time when our favorite inspector is putting his job on the back burner… I won’t spoil it all by telling the end, but this new novel is a page turner.
Qiu Xialong novel also evolve one after the other. They are all happening in the 90’s in Shanghai, but this one clearly includes a number of element that are more from 2000 Shanghai than 1990. From one novel to the next, we see the character’s life evolving and the city change. Part of the intrigue is still base on Cultural revolution and dark secrets from this time that come back to the surface many years later, but the whole topic also becomes broader including more part of Shanghai’s history. At the same time, the novel keeps in touch with the city’s reality and depicting the specific atmosphere of the transforming city. Reading it was a couple of hours of pure enjoyment.