Memoirs and narratives about Shanghai (prior to 1949), have provided varied perspectives of the international city. The focus has largely remained the western inhabitants, the refugees, stately buildings and the seedier side usually dominated  by the native Chinese or Europeans. The intrigue, the danger and the various Chinese & western brothels have proved to be nourishing fodder for writers, historians and film-makers, documenting a city with multiple facades. The Sikh policeman , too, has featured in such works, to give the authentic aura and flavor of a very multicultural place.  Be it fiction or non-fiction, the Shanghai Sikh policeman makes a guest appearance. Either as a stolid yet  imposing cop or a bumbling one. His giant frame, bushy beard and fiery nature have certainly merited a cursory sentence or two.  In Shanghai’s British history, the Sikh will remain synonymous with imperialism and its unfairness and is, thus generally, poorly caricatured.

william marshall bookNot many books delve deeper into the life of Sikhs in Shanghai. So, when I came across William Leonard Marshall’s crime fiction book, ‘Shanghai’, I wasn’t expecting to be pleasantly surprised. Published in 1979, this book is well-researched and encapsulates the maneuvers and machinations of Shanghai  Municipal Police (S.M.P.) and of course the western Shanghai.

The book begins in 1923 when the protagonist Jack Edge, an Anglo-American and Chinese by self-definition,  a sergeant in S.M.P.  is put to test. Tested because of his marriage to a Chinese woman which has cast doubts on his loyalties. His superior, Inspector Moffat, a supercilious Scot, asks him to shoot 2 young Chinese men who have crossed the International Settlement boundaries. Edge,  wavers and fails. Promotions are withheld and his Chinese wife leaves him. The setting shifts to Sino-Japanese conflict (just weeks before Pearl Harbor) and much of the action is around the death of 2 Japanese men and the cat and mouse game played by the Westerners & Japanese military officers investigating the incident. Moffat, now a Deputy Assistant commissioner recruits Edge for the job, clearly as the task is better entrusted to a lowly sergeant. Unfortunately, Edge is still in Moffat’s poor graces , hence, has not progressed at work and is being used as a stooge.

Vivid setting, rich with very believable characters and taut pace make this book a page-turner. Constable Singh, Edge’s colleague and crony actually gets a speaking part. Marshall, also very cleverly utilized a real life incident involving the failed hanging of a Shanghai Sikh to weave it in the very crisp narrative.  Clearly, the news clippings on the incident came in handy. But, Marshall, also provides a little more insight (read the book to find out) and maybe relied on unofficial sources as well to get more meat on the story.

The backdrop of the Sino-Japanese conflict is essential in defining and delineating the main characters as ‘Old China Hands’ or China lovers and others. The latter are more clear in their intent in leaving the sinking ship because of the inevitability of Japanese domination.  Constable Singh, falls into the latter category and we are given to believe that he fakes his own drowning to escape to India , to be with his family.

Marshall, has done justice to Singh, depicting him as a smart foil to Edge’s loyal Old China hand character.  Betrayal, triumph, love , hate, all the masala ingredients make ‘Shanghai’ a must read. Apparently this was Marshall’s most ambitious work (the author’s brief bio states it so). Marshall, born an Aussie worked as a journalist, photographer  and took on some very interesting jobs (morgue attendant, for one)  and lived for several years in the Far East.

The cons : in order to make the characters plausible, sometimes they come off as stiff and contrived.  Moffat’s departing speech is one such example, making him a look a little too inept for an S.M.P.  Secondly, despite intensive research, Marshall slips a little by calling the Former French Concession as the French part of the International Settlement. But, I’ve put that aside (superciliously!) merely because he made the effort to detail a Shanghai Sikh constable and got most of it right.

One gets the uncanny feeling that Marshall has based some of the main characters in the book on real Shanghai folks. One Valdmir Mischensko, a Russian,  became a naturalized Australian in 1924 and served the Australian military forces. By 1930 Vladmir, who’d changed his name to William Marshall, moved to China and was employed in Shanghai Municipal Police. He met and married Vera, a Russian in Shanghai. After the Sino-Japanese war, they repatriated to Australia. Vladmir claimed that he’d applied to rejoin the Australian army but the British felt his services were essential in Shanghai. By 1950s, Vladmir and Vera were living in Sydney and their son was attending a high school there.  Could be mere coincidence…or maybe not. Maybe, Vladmir was a source for the book, ‘Shanghai?’ Author William Marshall was born in 1944 in Australia. Could there be any connection?  The above information on Vladmir is documented in a book titled ‘ Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War II’  by Christina Twomey.

Marshall’s book on Hong Kong (A Yellowthread Street Mystery) is next on my to-read list.