A rags-to-riches tale of two self-made men set against a backdrop of crime and vice in the sprawling badlands of 1930s Shanghai by the bestselling author of Midnight in Peking.
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Born Fahnie Albert Becker, the custodians called him John. His origins were a subject of rumour and conjecture, an ever-changing story as the years and then the decades passed. But the man who would be Jack Riley to all in Shanghai was probably born in a Colorado logging camp near Manitou Springs in 1897, the son of a certain Nellie Shanks and Albert Azel Becker. His old man, a violent alcoholic, was gone before his son's first birthday. His mother, broke and deserted, dumped him in a Tulsa orphanage, where the custodians beat the boys and left them hungry at night. Becker decided to bail when he was seven. He bummed around and somehow reached Denver, where he got a job polishing brass and emptying spittoons in a nightclub, sleeping out back; the joint was part casino, part dive bar, part brothel.
At seventeen he found a home and a family in the United States Navy. He shipped out of San Francisco for Manila on the U.S.S. Quiros as an apprentice seaman for two years on Yangtze Patrol, the 'Yang Pat' of the United States Asiatic Fleet. The Quiros was part of a squadron that patrolled upriver from Shanghai to Chungking and all ports in between, protecting U.S. citizens and interests, guarding the tankers of John D. Rockefeller's StandardOil Company, the up-country terminals of Texaco, and the packed warehouses and go-downs of British-American Tobacco.
Discharged in 1919, Becker couldn't think of anything better to do than re-enlist for another tour, this time Manila to Shanghai. Nights off he spent playing craps in the Hongkew and Chapei sailor bars and drinking along Blood Alley with money won in prizefights out back of the bars. Righteous bucko mate, rated fighter, all-round good guy. Then he was back aboard and upriver to Wuhu, Nanking, and Chungking, his downtime spent boxing on deck, going ashore to play baseball, or shooting craps in the mess. The Yang Pat rotated and the Quiros headed home. John Becker was honourably discharged in 1921.
John Becker stepped ashore in San Francisco and wandered the port towns of California, staying in one-night cash-only flops, eating corned beef in sawdust-floored restaurants or chop suey in all-night Chinese diners, oyster shells crunchy underfoot. Then came Prohibition, and he switched to speakeasies and shebeens, sucking down rotgut hooch, sandpaper gin, and near beer. Eventually he ran out of money and headed back to Oklahoma, to Tulsa County; the only city he could vaguely call home, though his memories of that orphanage and the violent custodians were far from warm.
He got a gig at a taxi company. He knew engines, and the company could save a mechanic's wage by having him service his own vehicle. In 1923 Becker was still driving drunks home on the late shift, but he knew for sure Tulsa was a bust. Darktown was in cinders after the Greenwood race riots, and crime was out of control.
One night he picks up two guys at the Cave House speakeasy out on Charles Page Boulevard. It's a good fare, and Becker has been drinking and feels like he can handle these boys. When they get to the destination, a house in the suburbs, the men tell John Becker to wait while they pick something up, and then they'll head back to town. The meter's still running, he's supping a quart of rye, so what the heck. The men walk up to the house across the lawn, the outline of their hats visible as they open the door and smoke wafts out into the dark night air. There's shouting, commotion, and a shot; the men come out fast, dragging a third who doesn't look like he wants to leave.
If you believe John Becker, he didn't know anything till he heard the shouting and the shot. The men threw the third in the back and jumped in, punching the daylights out of the poor sap. Becker drives them to another house, and they drag the beaten guy in with them, but not before one of the men hands him a hundred-dollar bill and tells him to vamoose. The next day the cops show up and bust Becker for kidnapping. His fare had boosted an illegal dice game, killed one of the punters, and kidnapped another. There's a kidnapping epidemic in the Midwest, and it's re-election year, so the judge is not inclined to go easy. John Becker goes down for thirty-five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester.
His civvies are confiscated, his head shaved to prevent lice; he's fingerprinted and photographed. On the cellblock: big guards with black batons; seven-by-three-foot cells; a disinfectant-filled bucket for your shit; a deafening siren in case of escape or riot; bad, bad food; men praying; hardened cons deranged with untreated syphilis, sobbing for their mamas; the mad and the bad of McAlester.
Becker plays dice for smokes. He becomes a trusty and gets a job in the shop. An old lag shows him how to make a pair of loaded dice that will always come out the way you want, if you learn to throw them just so and distract the heels. Those hours of pitching with the Yang Pat crew prove useful; he becomes the starting pitcher on the prison baseball team. They head for an out-of-pen game in McAlester City, and when the team heads one way with the guards, Becker heads the other. Walking away, the sweat streaming down his back, he waits for a guard's bullet to smash into his spine. Not running, not turning back, heart beating fit to jumpright out of his chest. But the bullet never comes. He hops a freight running the St. Louis–San Francisco line. He's just skipped out on the lion's share of a three and a half decade stretch.
On the run, he's in a San Francisco boardinghouse down on the Embarcadero — as far west as you can get without swimming. He's spent nights in hobo camps where nobody asks your name. Now he needs to hunker down, stay out of sight, hope Oklahoma forgets about him. He knows he got lucky; he got a second chance. He quits the booze and the smokes — no profit in either. He rolls a drunk tramp on the waterfront and nabs his papers, and he's Edward Thomas Riley now. Fahnie Albert Becker is history. He likes Jack better than Edward, thinks he'll keep the T, and Riley suits just fine too — anonymous, everyday, all-American. There must be thousands of Jack Rileys out there. But some things are more difficult to change than your name.
Jack sits at a small table, rolls up his sleeves, and pours caustic soda in a glass. He takes off his leather belt and puts it between his teeth, then lays two hand towels out next to the glass. He takes three deep breaths, looks out the window at the scrappy backyard of the boardinghouse, and dips the fingers of his left hand in the chemical mix. The acid burns, and he snorts through his nose, forcing himself to dip each finger, then switches to his right hand, breathes really deeply, and repeats the process — thumbs and all. He takes his last finger out and relaxes his jaw, lets the belt fall out on his lap. He manages to wrap the towels around his hands and staggers over to the bed. He lies there for days, in satisfied agony. The whorls on his fingertips are gone, and they slowly heal and harden into callused skin. It ain't pretty, but he's a new man with a new start. He signs on as a mechanic with a tramp freighter heading across the Pacific to the Philippines.
* * *
Jack had liked Manila on his two Navy tours. First he stays at the Seamen's Mission, but then gets wise to where things are really happening. He hangs out at Ed Mitchell's Rhonda Grill, swings by a hole-in-the-wall called Tom's Dixie Kitchen that cooks tender steaks and sells imported Scotch for nine pesos a shot. He laps up the scene at the Metro Garden and Grill Ballroom, watching the Navy boys of the United States Asiatic Fleet drinking iced Pabst. On Christmas Day, the joints round Manila Bay and the Metro are a sea of white hats. It seems those boys can't spend their wages fast enough — booze, girls, dope.
Jack trades up to a room at the Manila Hotel. He gets himself into some craps games and wins himself a stake with those magic Oklahoma State Pen dice. He attends the afternoon tea dances at the genteel Bayview Hotel to tickle the ears of the Navy wives and buys himself some Saigon linen suits to smarten up his act. Early afternoon he takes in the movies at the theatres near the Malacanyan Palace until he realises the seat cushions are teeming with lice; he has to wash his hair with kerosene to kill the bastards. He likes walking the wealthy streets where the rich mestizos and the expat Americans live: the quiet, wide, tree-lined thoroughfares by the Bay or Dewey Boulevard with high-end American compounds, a LaSalle convertible in every driveway.
Down at the Metro, Jack hooks up with a local called Paco who shows him the sights. Paco has a British gal called Evelyn who's got a Russian surname, Oleaga, on account of having been married to a Russian some time back. Paco and Evelyn spot Jack for a bucko-mate-on-the-lam right off the bat. They hang out nightly at Ed Mitchell's before hitting the Metro: determinedly teetotaling Jack on the seltzer, Evelyn on the house Dubonnet cocktails. Paco invariably gets shit-faced with his Manilamen brothers, leaving Jack and Evelyn to talk. Jack breathes in her chypre perfume and digs her fancy cut-glass accent. He tells her he wants out. Manila is a steamy version of Tulsa, but Shanghai is the real deal. She confesses she hates this swamp and wants to go to Shanghai too. Jack tells her to look him up.
A couple of weeks later Paco pulls a bank heist with his brothers on Evelyn's tip-off and walks away with forty thousand pesos. Evelyn had her claws into the manager and sweet-talked everything out of him that Paco needed to know to rob the place right when the teller's drawers were full to bursting. Evelyn asks for her share, and Paco laughs, spits in her face, and slaps her across the room before throwing her out on the street and calling her evil. Evelyn, black-eyed, finds Jack drinking coffee in the Rhonda Grill and tells him the sorry story. Jack takes umbrage on her behalf and walks her back to her Chinatown apartment, where he finds Paco liquored up and smooching a Japanese whore. Jack beats the living crap out of Paco and hands Evelyn her cut, only to watch while she kicks Paco repeatedly in the cojones. Paco was right, Jack thinks, you are evil, Evil Evelyn. She stays the night in his hotel room, leaving the scent of chypre on Jack's sheets. The next morning he takes her to the harbour and watches her board a steamer for Shanghai, Paco already forgotten. Evil Evelyn pecks him on the cheek and says she owes him one.
In Manila Jack sees his first real industrial-size slot-machine operation and the gawk-eyed leatherneck marines lining up to lose their coin on payday. He'd seen slots in Tulsa, but only one at a time in a speakeasy or a blind pig. Nobody had much coin to spare back there. But in Manila, they cover whole floors. He watches the coins go in, the wheels spin, and a fuck of a lot fewer coins come out. Later, a thick-necked guy comes over and empties the back of the machine into a bucket, right up to the brim. Sweet business. Jack gets friendly with the lanky overseer, some ex-army Canadian called Penfold, or Pinfold. He explains the slots business to Jack. Easiest money on God's green earth, no wages wasted on croupiers, machines don't thieve the take, the dumbest hick could figure it out: just pop a peso in the slot, pull the lever, and wave it goodbye. Then do it again ... and again ... and again. It's rigged to the house and pays out ten per cent max on a good day.
It's time to move on. Jack buddies up with the Navy boys and jumps a U.S. Army transport heading for Shanghai. The U.S.S. Chaumont does the run regular and the crew are always willing to do a favour for a Yang Pat vet. Maybe they could carry the odd cargo from Manila for an old U.S. Navy man trying to make a go of it on the China Coast? Maybe they could at that.
* * *
The cold weather lingers late in Shanghai the spring of 1930. Jack Riley's fingers feel the cold bad. He's got a one-room flop with a shared can up in Hongkew that's a pay-by-the-day establishment. It's run by an old Swedish seaman's widow who's soft on sailors and doesn't hassle him for the rent. He keeps warm in his single divan with a leaky old kerosene heater and stashes his clothes in a mothball-smelling closet pushed against the mouldy blue walls. By night Jack's got a gig bouncing the door of the Venus Café, a late-late-night cabaret up on the North Szechuen Road, close by the dive bars of Jukong Alley. Babylonian Jewish Sam Levy runs the joint with his sister-in-law, Girgee, and they take a liking to Jack. Sam schmoozes the patrons while Girgee keeps the business side of things ticking over — ten cents a dance with the White Russian hostesses. Sam's happy to have Jack take care of the door, pay him some, and have his company for the Venus's traditional four a.m. ham and eggs, when the riffraff is sent on its way.
The Venus is a quiet joint till about midnight, when it becomes a bad-news mix of off-duty marines, British squaddies, Shanghai's foreign lowlife, and slumming swells. Jack is packing knuckledusters and a leather cosh, and there's a cutthroat Bengal razor in his breast pocket if things go truly south. Feet and fists will deal with ninety-nine per cent of the trouble at the Venus, and Jack's rep as a tasty amateur Navy boxer helps some. He's partnered with another ex-Navy tough guy called Mickey O'Brien, who's solid backup. The two hit it off from day one.
He's taken up with a regular at the Venus, Babe Sadlir, who's been in Shanghai 'since Christ only knows when'. Brown-eyed Babe is originally from Nevada via some dark times in San Francisco after stabbing a girl who took her man. She ditched the man, dodged the police, and lit out for Shanghai. Babe is one of the legion of 'White Flowers' of the China Coast, semi-high-class tramps who drift the Settlement, grifting the newly arrived British 'griffins', those young businessmen with money to spend who work at the great corporations, or hongs, as they're known, or the soldiers with pay to waste and the sojourners looking for company while they're in port.
By day you'll find Babe topping up her tan by the pool at the Columbia Country Club, scandalising the taipan wives with her Mei Li Bah cigarettes and short shorts that don't leave much to the imagination. By night you'll find her drinking champagne and snaffling free caviar in her tight-fitting linen dresses — all on some British or French officer's tab at the Cercle Sportif Français. She stays out all night a lot and lets Jack crash at her place in the Young Allen apartments on Chapoo Road. They even get it together occasionally. Jack likes Babe: the jagged scar on her neck from some ancient catfight, how she can't speak without cursing, her blonde ringlets. She teaches him the funny-sounding China Coast pidgin English and a smattering of Shanghainese patter. But she's got an awful bad dope habit and disappears for days, getting glassy-eyed on the divans in Leong's opium den out back of the Moon Palace dance hall, a ballroom with a mostly Chinese clientele, on the Hongkew Broadway. Leong's sweet on her blonde hair, calls her a 'fox spirit girl' and lets her have dope gratis till she can find another sucker to sub her.
Jack finds Sam's four a.m. crew are mostly Jewish. There's Al Israel, who runs the Del Monte Café out in the Western External Roads on Avenue Haig; the Wiengarten brothers, Sammy and Al, who front the Red Rose Cabaret and a bunch of hooch shacks north of the Soochow Creek; Albert Rosenbaum, who'd come to Shanghai from Mexico City via New York; a Swiss heist merchant called Elly Widler, who has you counting your fingers after you've shaken hands with him; and the exhibition dancers Joe and Nellie Farren. Babe knows Nellie from the Majestic; Joe's in tight with the Israelites, being of that persuasion himself.
One night after the ham and eggs Joe tells Jack there's a longstanding craps game close by, out back of the Isis Cinema, organised by the White Russian band that accompanies the silent flicks. There's an old army blanket rather than felt for a shooting surface. Get low down against the wall and roll them dice. The suckers fresh out of California or just off the boat from England let Jack Riley use his very own special rolling bones, his sole souvenir of the Oklahoma State Pen. Six the hard way, easy eight, hard ten. Jack rolls a four, 'Little Joe from Kokomo'; a snake-eyes, comes up with three on each dice and calls it 'Jimmie Hicks from the sticks'. He keeps up the patter to keep the dice flying, the money moving, and nobody looking too closely. The sailor boys and the griffins are in awe of Jack, and they lap up his schtick.
They're long games; they go on till way past dawn. Jack ups the stakes, lures the mugs in, stares down anyone who would like to suggest Jack Riley's dice ain't straight. He prowls the Trenches bar strip after the Venus closes, hearing the Chinese touts crying 'Poluski girls, Poluski girls', taking the punters in the craps games out back of the shacks that run the length of the Scott Road and always building his stake a little higher. The next step is to gain some real estate of his own, put down some Shanghai roots.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "City of Devils"
Copyright © 2018 Paul French.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue — The Devil's Last Dance,
Part One: The Rise to Greatness,
Part Two: The Lords of Misrule,
Part Three: The Hour between Dog and Wolf,
Epilogue — The Fallen City,
Also by Paul French,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is often commented by readers that they wish to be able to read a true crime story as easily as they can a crime fiction one, Paul French has accomplished that in my eyes. This was an endlessly compelling tale and proves that it's true what they say - the truth certainly is stranger than fiction! I haven't come across French before despite being a lover of true crime but I am already looking to acquire his other books. This is a meticulously researched narrative and it shows throughout the book. I imagine that a massive amount of time went into compiling this for us readers to enjoy - thank you to the author for that. I love Asian history and have a thirst to know more, couple that with it being true crime and you have a title that is pretty close to perfection for me! French has found a niche and that is a rarity these days when generally everything has been done to death. All in all, this is a wonderful read. I enjoyed learning about everything that was going on back in the 1930's and hearing about the criminals that flocked to Shanghai to escape their pasts. If you're looking for a nuanced true crime title, you cannot go far wrong with this! I was so pleased to learn French has written about North Korea, that is right up street and i'm off to purchase it right now. Many thanks to riverrun for an ARC. I was not required to post a review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
It's the 1930s and 40s and Jack Riley and “Dapper” Joe Farren are big players in Shanghai's seedy underworld. American Jack Riley escaped prison and came to Shanghai and now runs a gambling empire. “Dapper” Joe Farren, originally from Vienna, finds his way to Shanghai with dancing and romantic partner, Nellie, and eventually rules the nightclubs. But it's hard to remain on top especially when you live a life of crime and people are looking to bring you down. So while the book certainly focused on the two men, it was also a nice little history of Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s. I much preferred the first half of the book which was about Jack and Joe's rise to power rather than the other half which was more about their downfall. There were quite a few people to keep track of and I wish the author would have included a reference page for that instead of a glossary of terms. Overall, while the story of Jack and Joe with the backdrop of Shangahi is interesting, I wouldn't say it is must read unless you are specifically interested in nonfiction from this time period and location. I won a free copy of this book in a giveaway but was under no obligation to post a review. All views expressed are my honest opinion.