French Concession by Xiao Bai is a complex novel that interleaves a number of different storylines told by different narrators who all live or work inside the French Concession in 1930s Shanghai. The novel begins with an assassination and from there follows a communist cell, some police officers in the French political section, an arms dealer, a newspaper photographer turned double agent, Shanghai police, and some Western speculators and diplomats trying to make their fortune. In the main storyline, the novel follows the communist cell, the arms dealer, and the cops as the one attempts to cause trouble in the Concession, one attempts to run their business, and the other attempts to stop the first two. According to documents at the end of the novel, this story is based on real happenings in Shanghai and came about when the author started trying to piece together documents that had been not well archived over the years.
It took me awhile to get into the story, possibly because of all of the different narrators and storylines. There are some storylines that are secondary to the main story, and I had a hard time at first trying to figure out how they fit. However, the novel begins with a list of characters and a brief description of who they are in relation to each other, and that helped me get into the story. Once I got into it, I kept reading into wee hours of the morning, because I wanted to know what happened.
One of the things that this novel does really well, in part because of all of the secondary stories, is its sense of place. You definitely get the feeling of a place that is full of people, all with their own agendas, trying to make their way in a bustling city. This was also helped on by an occasional map being included. Shanghai, and the French Concession, in part because it is a place that is created by the people that live in it, is a character in this novel. And, it was great. I originally bought it because I read a description that called it a noir novel. I was expecting it to be more pulpy. It is noir, for sure, following the suspects, the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes in the novel. But, it is much more complicated than a pulp novel and it required a lot more concentration. So, if you wanted something light to read at the end of the day, this is not for you.
If you enjoy novels that are told from multiple perspectives, give you a sense of a historical time and place, or are noir, then I totally recommend this novel.