I’m a big fan of noir fiction so I was intrigued to hear more about the non-fiction noir of Paul French ahead of his appearance at Jewish Book Week in March.
You can see Paul at Edinburgh Book Festival on 21 August.
What’s the story behind your latest book, City of Devils?
It’s the last days of old Shanghai – that incredible period between the world wars when Shanghai was the only totally open city on earth. While it was a creation of imperialism after the Opium Wars between Britain and China, Shanghai later became (due to its lack of requirements for passports or visas) a sanctuary, a port of last resort, for many Chinese fleeing famine and warlord chaos, then Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, and finally nearly 40,000 European Jews escaping from fascism.
It was also, due to that very same anonymity, a haven for criminals. City of Devils is about the legendary nightclubs and the infamous partnership between Jack Riley, an American gambling kingpin who escaped from Oklahoma Penitentiary and bolt-holed in Shanghai, and Joe Farren, who danced his way out of the Jewish ghetto of Vienna to become known as ‘the Ziegfeld of Shanghai’ , create amazing chorus lines and run the swankiest nightclubs in the city.
Together they aimed to open Asia’s largest ever nightclub and casino in Shanghai’s notorious ‘Badlands’ district. It was a great dream – but the city’s organised crime, the police, the encroaching Japanese army, and perhaps even the rapacious and relentlessly modern city of Shanghai itself, had other ideas.
Oh, and it’s all true….
As an author of narrative non-fiction, how do you balance telling a good story with presenting the evidence?
It varies from story to story. My last book, Midnight in Peking, was the story of an unsolved murder of 19-year-old English woman in Beijing in 1937. I felt that when dealing with a death as tragic as that – the investigation collapsed due to the Japanese invasion of China; the girl’s father pursued the killers himself as far as he could – I could not deviate from the documentary evidence. So the challenge was to write the story as compellingly as possible, using all the historical sources, but not bog the reader down in masses of detail, history and side trails.
City of Devils is slightly different. It focuses on a world, rather than a single incident. It is the world of Shanghai’s demi-monde and criminal milieu in the late 1930s and 1940s. There were a lot of records – police files, court records, newspapers – but I needed to make a lot of guesses as to what people did, their motives and their reasoning. I hope I don’t stray too far from the evidence. I do think (perhaps pompously!) that as my career has been writing about China’s modern history for 25 years now I hope my readers trust me that when I do reach beyond the hard evidence I’m making highly educated leaps!
Some reviewers have said your books have the pace of crime fiction. Would you like to write a novel?
I’m edging towards it. I love history and I love the process of historical research. I do think that truth is often stranger than fiction. In my next book I want to take a series of real and recorded crimes from late 1940s Shanghai – murder, black-marketeering, smuggling – and link them. I think they were linked, but the chaos of the times (the end of the war with Japan; the Chinese civil war; the mass exodus of Jewish and Russian refugees from the city before the communists arrived) meant the police never made those links. So I’m creating a fictional character to make those links – a detective in the 1940s hardboiled style that seems to me to suit the period and Shanghai.
It’s going to be an interesting hybrid of heavily researched true crime and history mixed with some fictional elements. Hopefully my readers will follow me on that journey!
What do you enjoy reading? Tell us about
- A book that has stayed with you
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – a very canny English teacher at my North London Comp gave it to us truculent 15-year-old boys who had thrown just about every other book back at him. But Brighton Rock was something else! Of course it’s a great story, well told, about somewhere we all knew from weekend trips. Now I know that Greene spent time in Brighton and saw the London criminals at the race tracks and the fighting razor gangs of the 1930s and decided to take those true crimes and wrap then in the fiction of Pinky, Dallow and Rose. As someone moving slowly from true crime to historical crime fiction you can see how influential that book might be to me today, quite a few years after first reading it…
- A recent book you enjoyed
I am completely hooked on Volker Kuscher’s Babylon Berlin series of novels featuring detective Gereon Rath – the fourth is out in English later this year I believe. 1920s Weimar Berlin, cabarets and nightclubs, criminals, showgirls, and the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis. I have a liking for writers (and I do this myself too I guess, as all my books end with the Japanese invasion of China) who write about periods just before terrible events that the writer can’t change – Kuscher on pre-Nazi Berlin; the spy writer Alan Furst on France shortly before the Occupation. Successfully having your characters feel a sense of foreboding, but keeping the reader gripped even though we know the end is nigh and worse than any of the characters can imagine, is a real trick.
- A book you can’t wait to read
Like everyone who writes in the ‘neo-noir’ genre I worship James Ellroy and his LA-set books. He’s been incredibly influential on me and many other writers. He also mixes fact with rumour, gossip and outright invention to amazing effect. And he’s an incredible writer. His new book The Storm is out later this year – ‘New Year’s Eve 1941, war has been declared and the Japanese internment is in full swing. Los Angeles is gripped by war fever and racial hatred.’ I’ve pre-ordered!!
What are you working on now?
I’m taking a short break between books to put together something slightly different – an Audible Original. I’ve noticed my audiobook sales doing really well year-on-year and about 50% of ‘reader’ email I get is now from ‘listeners’ – cabbies, runners, commuters, long-distance lorry drivers, bored soldiers, people doing the weekly supermarket shop with their buds in! it’s extraordinary; but brilliant. So I’m doing a 14-episode audio series for Audible – each one is half an hour and recounts a different murder case from China in the first half of the twentieth century. Half an hour of narrative audio (with some music and some lines read by actors) equates to roughly 4,000 to 4,500 words so 14 episodes is basically the length of a book. It’s exclusive to Audible, and I’ll be interested to see how well it does.
I’m not snobby about writing – I don’t mind if people read hardbacks or paperbacks; e-books or audiobooks. It’s all storytelling.
Paul French was born in London, educated there and in Glasgow, and lived and worked in Shanghai for many years. His book Midnight in Peking was a New York Times Bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, a Mystery Writers’ of America Edgar award winner for Best Fact Crime and a Crime Writers’ Association (UK) Dagger award for non-fiction. His most recent book City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir has received much praise with The Economist writing, ‘…in Mr French the city has its champion storyteller.’ Both Midnight in Peking and City of Devils are currently being developed for television.
Read my review of Paul French’s Audible Original, Murder of Old China.
Learn more about Jewish Book Week.