James Contursi submitted this review of a non-numismatic book with a numismatic connection. Thanks.
City of Devils : The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai.
By Paul French. New York : Picador, (2018).
ISBN: 978-1-250-19171-7. Soft cover, 16 + 299 pages, 8 leaves of plates (some color).
Reviewed by James L. Contursi
Anyone with more than just a cursory interest in the Shanghai tokens of the 1930s and 40s has, doubtlessly, encountered the names of “Dapper" Joe Farren and E.T. “Lucky Jack" Riley. The Shanghai of that era served as a magnet for refugees, exiles, criminals, AWOL military personnel, drifters, grifters and opportunists, and just about anybody either looking to escape a past, desperately trying to reinvent a present, or daring to imagine a future, a land of dashed hopes and a land of endless dreams, and Joe and Jack came rallying to the call.
The former, an Austrian dancer extraordinaire with huge dreams, who came to dominate the Shanghai nightlife scene as a dancer, night club impresario, manager and eventual part-owner of Farren's, the “in-est" of the Shanghai “in" spots. The latter, an ex-U.S. navy boxing champ, escaped convict, and petty criminal, who graduated to become christened the undisputed “Slots King of Shanghai." To be sure, however, neither is a hero, and this is not a story with a Casablanca ending. Together, Joe and Jack had the Shanghai underworld at their feet, and it took an invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army to bring down their criminal empires.
Two E.T. Riley tokens, the Domino Café and the 4th Marines Club, share a common reverse
While City of Devils was not intended as a numismatic work, its pages can offer a bountiful harvest of numismatic-related information, regarding the convoluted machinations employed to bring slot machines into Shanghai; the arrival of the first machines in Shanghai (early October, 1933); some backstory on the clubs and club owners that installed them; and the tokens themselves, imprinted with the club's name on one side, and, on the other side, “stamped ‘E.T.R.', which every leatherneck, squaddie, driftwood, and civilian knows stands for Edward Thomas ‘Jack' Riley…."
Although a work of non-fiction, it's written in a fast-paced, hard-boiled style, much in the vein of a Dashiell Hammett or a Mickey Spillane novel. An abundance of description paints the vivid landscape of Shanghai's dark underbelly – you can almost sense the likes of a Peter Lorre, letters of transit clenched tightly in his fist, melting into the nighttime shadows along Blood Alley, trying desperately to avoid his imminent arrest by the Kempeitai.
There are, however, two things lacking, which, if included, would have greatly augmented City of Devils. The first is a map. While naming the streets and districts through which Joe, Jack and others cruised – the Badlands, Blood Alley, Fah Wah Village, Hongkew Park, etc. – lends a sense of exoticism to the work, to the reader without a visual aid, there's no point of reference; they're reduced to not-so-meaningful names hanging in mid-air. It's clear that Joe and Jack knew the lay of the land, but their knowledge is lost to the reader.
The second is an index, the lack of which greatly diminishes the value of this book as a research tool. As mentioned above, there is much worthwhile information here, numismatic and non-numismatic, but, without an index, gleaning this data, obviously, becomes a labor-intensive exercise.
Nevertheless, French amply fleshes out some of Shanghai's many nefarious characters, about whom, previously, we had only bare-bones glimpses, names with no personae. His research is laudable and his book is heartily recommended on all fronts: as an historical reference, an enhancement of numismatic knowledge, and as a plain, old-fashioned good read. It would be no surprise if City of Devils wound up becoming the basis of a blockbuster movie.
For more information, or to order, see:
CITY OF DEVILS
The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
Wayne Homren, Editor
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization
promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at coinbooks.org.
To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor
at this address: email@example.com
To subscribe go to: https://my.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/esylum
Copyright © 1998 - 2012 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.
NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster