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.

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 Master of Rain

Book Cover
Book Cover

Field is a young English officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police, freshly arrived from Yorkshire. Through his uncle high in the Shanghai establishment, he is very quickly introduced to both the high Shanghai society, and the less glamorous parts of the megalopolis. The master of Rain is a crime novel based in Shanghai 1927, centered around the resolution of furious murders of  Russian prostitutes. Field tries is best to solve the murder, along with his newly found friend, the American detective Capresi. They are surrounded by a fallen White Russian noble turned into serving men (Natasha Medvedev) and the Taipan of one of the largest trade house (Charles Lewis), all of it under the shadow of the king of Shanghai’s mafia.

Although I bought this book without knowing anything about it, I have loved every page. Tom Bradby was the foreign correspondent for a British TV in China. Based in Hong Kong, he clearly used a lot of time and efforts to research and recreate the old Shanghai in his novel. Characters have the right tone and locations in the city have been thoroughly researched. Only Shanghai experts will notice a few omissions, or inventions but they never deviate too far from documented history. Action flows at a fast pace making this book a real page turner.

Though enjoying the book tremendously, I have to admit that the universe created by Tom Bradby has a lot of sight, but very few sounds, smell or taste. It fails a little to immerse us in the (noisy) streets of Shanghai. There is a also a little too much indulgence in making the characters meet various historical figure (such a Borodin) without any need for the actual story. The actual plot is sometimes bizarre and the book leaves many questions unanswered, which is a bit disappointing for a crime novel. Finally, the sexual serial crime at the center of the novel seems a little odd in the 1930’s.

Nevertheless, The Master of Rain is a great introduction to the old Shanghai, recreating the Paris of the East and illustrating the high life of a few as well as the hard life of many. As a quick introduction to the Old Shanghai, it comes highly recommended.