Love and Death in Shanghai

Written by Elizabeth J. Hall
Review by Lynn Guest

Eager for adventure and good pay, Sam Shuttleworth joins the Shanghai Municipal Police in 1924. Hard-working, he is quickly promoted. Then he meets Lulu, a beautiful if volatile White Russian, and his troubles start. They marry and have a daughter, but the marriage cannot survive Lulu’s infidelities and the growing chaos in Shanghai: crime, civil war and possible Japanese invasion. Sam must do his demanding job, cope with his jealousy, and take care of his beloved daughter.

Essentially plotless, the novel follows Sam’s police work and turbulent love life from 1924 to his murder in 1942—a spoiler given in the prologue. These fascinating, complicated years in Chinese history are mainly described in conversations or police instructions; actual incidents are rarely described. The International Settlement was a sophisticated European city teeming with various nationalities and set in an exotic, changing China which is left to our imagination. When Sam returns to Lancashire on leave, his town and family’s life are presented in meticulous detail, which unfortunately points up how flat and colourless the Chinese background seems. To Hall’s credit, Sam is perfectly portrayed for the period and his roots. His interests are sport, drink and sex. There is no attempt to make a 21st-century metrosexual feminist out of Sam, but if his lack of interest in China is convincing, it is also regrettable for the interested reader. The novel’s bibliography is mouth-watering. The ghastly Russian Lulu is fun, though.