MJ Lee’s Death in Shanghai is a delicious crime novel set in old Shanghai. Terrific plot, great characters, superb writing – and oh, the historical detail! It truly brings old Shanghai to life, infusing the characters, and even the crime. We wanted to know more, and author Martin Lee obliged us with an interview.
Historic Shanghai: How, and why, did you select Shanghai in 1928 as your setting for a crime novel? Which came first – the setting or the story?
MJ Lee: I remember very clearly when the idea for writing a novel came to me. I was living and working in Shanghai at the time, and was out walking one evening. It was around dusk in October, one of the best times of the year in Shanghai. Perfect walking weather. I reached the crossroads at Jiangxi Zhong Lu and Fuzhou Lu, just opposite the Metropole Hotel, where those three Art Deco skyscrapers look down on you. For a moment, there was no traffic and no people, a strange occurrence in Shanghai. I was suddenly transported back to the 1930s, imagining old Dodges and Chevrolets rolling up to the hotel, discharging carloads of flappers and elegant men wearing tuxedos. A lovely moment. It was then that I decided to start writing. So I guess it was the setting that inspired me. The idea of a crime novel came after I had done some research, realizing that the period was the perfect location for such a story.
HS: You describe late 1920s Shanghai beautifully – not just the descriptions [which are lovely] but also the historical detail, which is so accurate! How, and where, did you do your research? [Lots of details, please – Historic Shanghai geeks love information like this!]
MJL: Thank you for the compliment, I love doing research. Death in Shanghai is a novel but it was important to me to get the details correct. Luckily, there are some wonderful sources. I started with Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, the magisterial book on the Shanghai Municipal Police by Robert Bickers. That led me to autobiographies written by serving policeman, E. W. Peters and Ted Quigley, and a biography of W E Fairbairn. Once I understood the background, the Shanghai Public Security Museum, the Shanghai Municipal Council archives, the police archives, even the police handbook for 1938 written by Bill Widdowson, were indispensable.
To bring the past to life, I used the Reverend C. E. Darwent’s guide for 1911, Gow’s Guide to Shanghai 1924, and Paul French’s The Old Shanghai A-Z, which is simply the best street guide to colonial Shanghai. His book on Carl Crow also gives a wonderful feel for the period. Tales of Old Shanghai by Earnshaw Books also gave a gossipy (in the nicest way) introduction to the people and stories of the period.
On the web, Robert Bickers has created a wonderful visual resource in Historical Photographs of China as has Virtual Shanghai. There are few very useful blogs, all of which I’m happy to say I found here on Historic Shanghai. Finally, Youtube has a great Russian silent documentary, The Shanghai Document, shot in 1928. I used one of the images in this to help Inspector Danilov solve the crime!
These are just a few of the sources. There are still others I am tracking down. But most of all, I just loved walking around the streets of the city. At first, I used the excellent walking guides published by Old China Hand Press, but after a while I just used to wander wherever I felt like going. The Chinese people I met were very tolerant of this strange foreigner intruding in their space. Shanghai is such a great city to wander around.
Despite all the research, I still made mistakes, placing Danilov’s dwelling in Medhurst Apartments. Your readers will be aware that this building wasn’t constructed until 1934. I’m happy to hear if readers spot other mistakes as I will change them in the next edition. But Death in Shanghai is a work of imagination, not a history. Sometimes, one has to bend the past to suit the exigencies of story and plot.
HS: You’ve said that you learned a great deal from talking with older Shanghai residents – tell us more!
MJL: The main oral source was my father-in-law, Mr Kao Chin Pong, and his opera buddies. He grew up in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, living around Jing’an Temple. He has an unpublished memoir which my wife translated for me. Most of it concerns daily life at the time and his school days. He seems to have spent a lot of his youth in opera houses, tea houses, cinemas and theatres! Perhaps that was why he became an actor in later life. I would love to meet people who grew up in the period. They will be in their eighties at they moment, though.
HS: Your main character, Danilov, is a White Russian and his sidekick, Strachan, is half-Shanghainese, half-Scottish. Both were prevalent in old Shanghai, but they don’t appear very much in the literature of old Shanghai. Why do you think that is? And why did you select these particular ethnicities/nationalities to tell your story?
MJL: Actually, there are very few novels written about the period, only three or four I think, which was one of the attractions for me. I’ve deliberately avoided reading them, preferring to create my own version of the Shanghai of the period based on my research.
Both Danilov and Strachan are outsiders, in a society full of outsiders. It gave me the ability to distance them from the rest of the police force, and from the society of the time. Mavericks are always so much more interesting to read about and to write. The choice of Danilov as the lead in the books actually came from a line in E. W. Peters’ memoir. He mentioned that when they had a problem, both the French and Shanghai police turned to White Russian members of their forces to solve it for them.
HS: Tell us about the next book.
The next book is called City of Shadows and will be published on March 11th. It details the murder of a family of four in one of the lanes off Hankow Road. Danilov and Strachan are called in to investigate, forcing them to confront a terrible murder and their own image of a what a loving family means.
Martin Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, tv commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflake packets and hotel websites.
He has spent 25 years of his life working outside the North of England. In London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai, winning awards from Cannes, One Show, D&AD, New York and London Festivals, and the United Nations.
Whilst working in Shanghai, he loved walking through the old quarter of that amazing city, developing the idea behind a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pyotr Danilov, set in 1920s and 30s.
When he’s not writing, he splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, practicing downhill ironing, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.