SHANGHAI ON THE MÉTRO. Spies, Intrigue, and the French between the Wars by Michael B. Miller


“Miller gives pride of place in this panoply of characters to the ubiquitous White Russians who crop up everywhere as taxi-cab generals, soldiers of fortune, assassins, political intriguers, and, legendarily in the case of Shanghai, prostitutes. The White Russians obviously fascinate Miller as, I suspect, they will most of his readers. Nor are the simple adventurers immune from the seduction of foreign intrigue; the famous Croisiere jaune, whose expedition through central Asia captured Europe’s imagination in 1931, began under the careful tutelage of the intelligence section of the French Deuxieme bureau.


“What we have then is a vast canvas depicting just about every aspect of intrigue and adventure in the 1920s and 1930s. Parts of the book read like something taken out of the Boys Own Annual. But it is a tale told by a professional historian with a solid grasp of the archival sources (such as they are) and a seasoned skepticism about the veracity of his sources, be they official or not. In many ways, this book ought to be required reading for all aspiring authors of historical spy novels. Of course the author is acquainted with this genre too. He devotes a large section to the fictional and journalistic accounts of interwar spying and the manner in which the exotic, romantic, and dangerous world of Shanghai became accessible to the poor Parisian drudge wearily making his way home on public transportation. Whence comes the book’s title.

“This remarkable book has a number of strengths. Miller has read deeply in a wide range of archival collections in France, but also in Germany and the United States. Better yet, he has a good eye for what archives do and do not reveal. The book is peppered with astute observations about the workings of French intelligence services and their agents, as well as those who have subsequently preserved (or not!) their records. Prospective researchers should not set foot in an archive without first immersing themselves in these pages. Miller is also an engaging storyteller, which is just as well because his story is dense and complicated; it is rather like having the plots of all of Len Deighton’s novels compressed into one volume. Mysterious figures, about whom nothing much seems to be known for sure, enter on the stage and then leave without a trace. But the attentive reader is rewarded by Miller’s lucid and often delightfully ironic prose. No one, for example, should miss his dry observations about the practical advantages and limitations of the preferred substance for making invisible ink…”