> Skip to content

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai's lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals, by the author of the prize winning Midnight in Peking.

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost.
'Lucky' Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was 'Dapper' Joe Farren – a Jewish boy who fled Vienna's ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld's and his name was in lights above the city's biggest casino.
In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.
In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.


An astonishing achievement, magically transporting the reader back to Old Shanghai, then sweeping us through its streets and its bars in a gripping, breakneck ultra-noir narrative reminiscent of vintage Ellroy.

David Peace

City of Devils is not so much a forensic excavation as a literary recreation of a single point in time: the exclamation mark at the end of China’s century of humiliation. French has done a phenomenal amount of research: from the minutiae of fashion — ­apparently men would bring up to half a dozen extra collars when they went out on a summer’s evening — to perfumes, to the cars driven by the main characters. It is a tour de force, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period.

Tim Johnston, The Australian

A brilliant neo-noir about the rise and fall of two refugee outlaws at the end of Shanghai's golden age in the 1930s. Not since JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun or Andre Malraux's La Condition Humaine have I read a book that has so captured the decadence, pulchritude and madness of the 'Paris of the Orient'. I cannot recommend City of Devils highly enough.

Adrian McKinty

Wonderfully atmospheric . . . French's two-fisted prose makes this deep noir history unforgettable.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Historical true crime that transports you back to the decadence and deranged beauty of 1930s Shanghai - a place that rivaled Prohibition Chicago for colourful miscreants and bruisers, including an ex-Navy boxer who became the Slot King of Shanghai

The 50 best books of 2018 (so far), Newsweek.com

Meticulously researched, City of Devils resurrects a Shanghai that's less familiar to us: the heady, wild days of its foreign underbelly during the 1930s and early '40s, and the rise and fall of two of its kingpins.

Kate McKenna, The Courier Mail

Fast-paced, plot-twisty true-crime tale of the kingpins of Shanghai's Old City, land of miscreant opportunity. A Casablanca without heroes and just the thing for those who like their crime stories the darkest shade of noir.

Kirkus Reviews

For readers who can’t get enough fast-paced true crime books, City of Devils by Paul French is unquestionably the right book to pick up this summer.

Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish

Few writers are more expert at mingling crime narrative and social history, journalistic precision and novelistic sweep, than Paul French. His books paint times and places so beguiling and tell stories so vivid and harrowing that, within pages, we’re utterly in their dark thrall. If you love Richard Lloyd Parry and David Grann, don’t miss City of Devils.

Megan Abbott

Nothing lasts forever: In 1930s Shanghai, the no-holds-barred gangster scene was run by an American ex-Navyman and a Jewish man who’d fled Vienna. Their milieu - and its end - comes alive.

Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

City of Devils is classified as “literary non-fiction," which basically means that it’s a well-told, well-written historical narrative. Set in a nearly lawless Shanghai in the 1930s, the book follows two self-made men (“Lucky Jack” Riley, the slots king of Shanghai and “Dapper Joe” Farren, the ringleader of a series of nightclubs) as they rise, then fall, in a true-crime noir set in a debauched city on the eve of its own downfall.

James Tarmy, Bloomberg

A true tale that reads like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum should have starred in the film adaptation...I enjoyed City Of Devils tremendously, as a piece of history come to vivid life, and as a meditation on hubris, overreach and how some people’s innate craving for adventure can lead to disaster.

Lisa Brackmann, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel

For readers who can’t get enough fast-paced true crime books, City of Devils by Paul French is unquestionably the right book to pick up this summer.

Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish

To understand the “surrealist city,” as present-day Shanghai is enigmatically called, Paul French’s City of Devils is an absolute must. A solid, ground-breaking historical true-crime narrative, it is written with such vivid, well-researched details and totally captured me - a native Shanghainese - as if in a time capsule of the heretofore-unknown past passions and pathos of the city.

Qiu Xiaolong

Brings interwar Shanghai to life in a gritty work of narrative non-fiction...a vivid picture of the city's nightlife and criminal underworld...it is a fascinating tale of a city on the edge.

Post Magazine (UK)

Demotic, joyously profane and daringly idiosyncratic style . . . [close to] the urgent hepcat prose of James Ellroy

Paul Willetts, Literary Review (UK)

Astonishing...Eyewitness accounts from moles at the Shanghai Municipal Police, letters home and contemporary newspaper articles furnish this meticulously researched story where French takes you deep into those Badlands, grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

Book Reporter

A tale of flash and noir demands a voice to match; fortunately, French combines the skills of a scholar with the soul of Dashiell Hammett.

Boris Kachka, Vulture

?Move over Weimar: Paul French’s City of Devils, a history of glam and seedy interwar Shanghai’s refugees and criminals, is nostalgic noir at its best.

New York Magazine

A story with the dark resonance of James Ellroy’s novel “L.A. Confidential” and the seedy glamour of Alan Furst’s between-the-wars mysteries...Reader advisory: By the time you are done with this extraordinary book, you will believe in devils, too.

Mary Ann Gwinn, Newsday

The story is brought alive by Mr French’s Shanghai-noir telling, which echoes Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy. He grips his reader to the end.

The Economist

French’s louche and moodily lit recreation of Shanghai is thrillingly done. This atmospheric survey hangs on the zoot-suited shoulders of the two leads. French’s story chops and changes between Jack and Joe as they make their wayward ways east until fates and hardscrabble fortunes collide in the dive bars and dancehalls of Shanghai’s Blood Alley. He lays out his method in a preface and introduction, and documents his sources at the back.

Laura Freeman, The Times (UK)

It’s hard to go wrong with dope, decadence, and the demimonde . . . French recounts all this with great energy and brio.

Gary Krist, The New York Times Book Review

Read More

Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback


    May 14, 2018


    RRP $32.99

    Online retailers

    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Amazon
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Dymocks
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • The Nile
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook


    May 14, 2018

    Penguin eBooks

    Online retailers

    • iBooks
    • Amazon Kindle
    • Booktopia
    • eBooks
    • Google Play
    • Kobo
Paul French Q&A

The prize-winning author on channelling his life-long fascination with Shanghai into his latest book, City of Devils.

Also by Paul French