Imeet with Stephen Morrison, publisher and v-p at Picador, regularly, because we like each other and are in the same business, and when I told him about this column very early on, he had some great pitches. One that struck me immediately, and stayed with me, was City of Devils.
The book is set in the Wild West (Wild East?) days of Shanghai,
when it was an international city and, Morrison says, was known
as “the Chicago of the East.”
I’ve got a special affection for those cities with a history of
intrigue (think Casablanca, Macau, and Tangier), but they have
nothing on Shanghai between the two world wars. I’m intrigued
by this account of the fabled city and its infamous denizens, and
by the fact that City of Devils tells a story that hasn’t yet been told.
The author, Paul French, is a Brit who lived in Shanghai for
20 years. “I came in the mid-’80s after studying Chinese at Leeds
University,” he tells me. The language fascinated him. “I
thought of it as a bit like code breaking, and I gravitated to
Shanghai because I was always interested in art deco, and
Shanghai had this amazing architecture, untouched, as though
someone had thrown a dust sheet over it.” The Shanghainese,
he says, were always considered clever, and the Chinese government avoided imposing its authority on the city; it was the last
one to be put through reforms and, being an international city,
was ripe for crime and attractive to rule breakers.
French’s star rose with his first book, Midnight in Peking, a true
crime thriller about the murder of a young Englishwoman in
that city in 1937. Morrison, then editor-in-chief at Penguin,
bought it from Penguin Australia with Emily Murdock Baker,
a young editor he had hired originally as his assistant. He left
soon after, and it became Baker’s first nonfiction book. She polished the edition that had appeared in China and Australia along
with U.K. editor Joel Rickett of Viking UK, and the book was
published simultaneously in the U.S. and U.K. in 2012.
Midnight went on to win the Edgar, hit the New York Times
bestseller list, and rack up sales of 40,000 copies in the U.S.,
according to NPD BookScan, and more than 100,000 copies
worldwide with rights sold in 12 countries. A solid success.
Both Morrison and Baker—who had left Penguin to start her
own editing business, EMB Editorial, in 2015—kept in touch
with French. When Morrison called Baker and asked, “If I buy
French’s new book, will you edit it?” she didn’t hesitate. “We
had worked together so well before,” she says. “I thought, let’s
do it again.”
Morrison bought North American rights to City of Devils
from Penguin Australia and, with U.K. rights sold to Jonathan
Riley (editor-in-chief at Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, which
will publish it in June 2018), the team was in place.
“I first heard about Paul French over five years ago from the
author David Peace, who told me that he had given an endorsement to Midnight in Peking,” Riley says. “I was gripped and
impressed by the book in equal measure. A couple of years later,
Clare Alexander had become Paul’s agent, and I told her I would
love to see what he would write next. It was City of Devils.
Novelists had reimagined Shanghai of the period of the
International Settlement in magnificently contrasting ways,
from Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans to Ballard’s Empire
of the Sun, so I was more than receptive to a breathtakingly
researched story that reads as if James Ellroy had stumbled into
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY ■ OCTOBER 9, 2017 20
A cautionary tale of gambling, dope, and vice
in 1930s and ’40s Shanghai
Column |OPEN BOOK
By Louisa Ermelino