July 2024

In Joseph Kanon’s ‘Shanghai,’ escaping the Nazis is only the beginning

The author’s latest thriller takes place in the titular city in the 1930s, when it was a volatile hotbed of crime—and a sanctuary for Jewish refugees.
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When Daniel Lohr’s and Leah Auerbach’s eyes meet as they wait to board the SS Raffaello, their connection is instant and electric. The year is 1939, and they’ve both booked first-class passage on a weekslong journey from Trieste, Italy, to Shanghai. But while the cruise liner is massive in size and gorgeous in design, its opulence stands in sharp contrast to what the vessel really is to Daniel, Leah and their fellow Jewish passengers: a veritable lifeboat carrying them away from the horrors of Nazism in Europe to the great unknown (at least, for them) of the Far East.

In his fascinating and elegantly written new crime thriller, Shanghai, Joseph Kanon once again whisks readers back to World War II—as he did in previous bestselling novels including Alibi, The Good German and Leaving Berlin—immersing them in a pivotal time and place he describes as a “wonderful open window” offering the possibility of survival for those hoping to make a new start even as the world they knew crumbled around them.

“I thought, what would be more embarrassing than a publisher who can’t write? So I never told anybody that I was doing it . . .”

As the author explains in a call with BookPage from the upper Manhattan home he shares with his wife, “for about a year, Shanghai was the one place in the world that anybody could go without a visa, and it was a lifesaver” for approximately 20,000 European Jews, many of them hailing from Germany, like Daniel, and Austria, like Leah and her mother. 

Kanon learned about prewar Shanghai’s unique role in world history on a 2019 vacation to China. “I hadn’t known about, or if I did I just marginally knew about, the Jewish refugees who came from Europe after Kristallnacht [in 1938]. What an extraordinary story! I don’t know that it’s as well-known as it might be.” 

His fans are sure to spread the word: The internationally bestselling author’s books have been published in more than 24 languages. That massive readership originated with his first book, 1997’s Los Alamos, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 1998 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

While his writerly career certainly got off to a rollicking start, it isn’t something Kanon had pined for. Rather, the former publishing executive (he held top positions at both Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton) says, “I never wrote when I was working as a publisher. I didn’t have manuscripts secretly in drawers or anything like that. I enjoyed publishing and enjoyed what I was doing, and I didn’t really anticipate this life change.” 

But then came the summer of 1995. “I was with my wife in the Southwest, just as a tourist . . . . I’d always been interested in World War II and we were so near Los Alamos that I said, let’s go and see it. And I was absolutely floored by it and so intrigued: This was once the most secret place on the Earth, in the world, and you can go there.” As the site’s history and mystery sank in, he says, “I thought, gee, what would’ve happened if there had been a crime? How would they go about solving that, since it’s a place that technically doesn’t exist?”

Book jacket image for Shanghai by Joseph Kanon

With his publisher hat still firmly in place, Kanon says, “I thought, this is actually a neat idea. Who can I give it to?” Fortuitously, there were no takers—and he couldn’t shake his fascination with the notion of a crime occurring at such an extraordinary place in such an extraordinary time. “It just got me hooked, and I decided I would write the book. I’d never written anything, and I thought, what would be more embarrassing than a publisher who can’t write? So I never told anybody that I was doing it, and it became my secret book.”

Of course, word eventually got out in what he describes as “a sort of Cinderella ending, because the book worked and I discovered that I loved doing it. And so I was a poster child for career change: I was 50 when I started writing.” When asked what winning the Edgar Award meant to him, Kanon says, “Oh, it’s great, I won’t pretend otherwise. It’s fantastic! And you think, well, gosh, I guess I really am a writer.” 

As evidenced by the 10 subsequent novels he’s written, Kanon has fully immersed himself in his surprise second career. “To do anything creative and live inside your head, which writing requires, is a special luxury and I’m so grateful it’s happened,” he says. “I enjoy the process.” 

That process has reliably begun with “some spark of interest, usually in a place” because “I like stories that could not have taken place anywhere else, where the place is actually determinative.” Intensive research that includes books, news media, maps, photos, etc., about and from the time and location in question is de rigueur, as well as bouts of on-the-ground “location scouting,” as he puts it. 

Kanon says that, as he crafted Shanghai, it was top of mind that “here we have these people who have literally escaped with their lives. . . . No passport, no citizenship, no money, no language and nowhere to go . . . and I thought, now what do you do? How did people survive? Of course, that led to looking at the city that they had docked in as a port of last resort.” It was a place that became, he adds, “a byword for vice, like Chicago in the 1920s or Weimar Berlin, filled with gangsters and brothels and gambling clubs and jazz clubs with chorus lines.” 

“I like stories that could not have taken place anywhere else . . .”

And 1930s Shanghai was, Kanon says, “obviously a place where you can sink really fast, and morally you’re going to be compromised almost from the get-go. I wanted to combine both those worlds: I wanted to write about the nightclubs and the vice, the sort of seedy glamour of it, and how it’s glamorous on the one hand and terrible on the other. There were people who would die in the streets of hunger; it was a really extreme kind of situation.” 

Despite the tragic circumstances of the Jewish refugees who did not survive their stay in the city, Kanon says, “most people did make a life for themselves. There were community organizations that were formed, there were soccer teams and some attempt to have a normal life to get through this period.” Shanghai “constituted a kind of refuge because the Japanese just didn’t take over. They just let it be,” thus rendering the city largely self-governing in practice. 

In this volatile place, characterized by a “mixture of crime and politics and gang warfare,” the SS Raffaello passengers must forge a new life. After the ship docks at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Daniel and Leah emerge from the romantic, staving-off-reality bubble they’d inhabited while on the high seas and go their separate ways on unfamiliar terra firma. “We’re all going over the edge,” Leah frets, “and there’s nothing we can do.”

Leah and her mother are taken to refugee shelters called “heime” (German for “homes”) established by charitable organizations, while Daniel enters his uncle Nathan’s domain in the Shanghai underworld. Additional characters to watch include Florence Burke, an American whose vivacious exterior belies hidden depths, and the ever-calculating Colonel Yamada, a member of the Japanese Kempeitai (or as Daniel puts it, “their Gestapo”).

And then there’s Uncle Nathan who, in Kanon’s deft hands, is at once appealing and appalling. He bankrolled Daniel’s passage and offers him a well-paying job in Shanghai, a place where so many are penniless—but he also has no compunction about putting Daniel in danger via dealings with Chinese gangsters and other unsavory sorts. 

Read our starred review of ‘Shanghai’ by Joseph Kanon.

This type of tantalizing push-pull resonates through Shanghai, building tension and suspense via Leah’s determination to maintain her dignity despite moral concessions she makes in order to eke out a living, and Daniel’s conflicted feelings about the last remaining member of his family. Kanon says, “What I tried to do in this [book] is to show the duality, the good and bad sides at once. Uncle Nathan on one level can be charming, and he’s certainly loving, and I think he very much wants to be a father figure to Daniel,” in the absence of Daniel’s father, Eli, a decorated veteran and judge who died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. 

“There’s a lot about [Nathan] that’s appealing in the same way there’s a lot about Tony Soprano that’s appealing; he’s a mensch in some ways,” Kanon explains. “On the other hand, I wanted to make perfectly clear that he’s also involved in running brothels and is obviously destroying the lives of the people who are in them. . . . And for Daniel to see that there are two sides to this coin, and one of them may be marginally appealing, but the other sure isn’t.” Daniel is deciding what he’ll do both out of duty to Nathan and in keeping with his own desire to build a not-yet-imagined future, Kanon says. “If it means getting involved in crime, if it means getting involved in really morally compromised positions, he’s going to do it. But how long is he going to do it, and how far will he go?”

By twisted necessity, Daniel’s new existence does trade in danger—both threatened and actual—that affects him and those he cares about. Although it may have its own dark logic, Daniel doesn’t take it lightly. Rather, he muses after he witnesses a violent altercation, “the bullet didn’t stop. It kept on going, into all the lives that surrounded it, tearing through one after another, so that you never killed just one person. The bullet didn’t stop.” 

Kanon says that as he sifts through history, unearthing stories and creating his own, he strives to emphasize that we shouldn’t lose sight of the “chain reaction,” the seemingly endless reverberation of violence and war. 

” . . . every book has the right to bring up questions, and I would be pleased to think that my books made people think . . .”

And that, he says, is what draws him time and again to the questions at the heart of his body of work. He notes, “In [2012’s] Istanbul Passage, one of the characters said, ‘What do you do when there’s no right thing to do? Just the wrong thing,’ and I think we’re confronted with decisions like that every day in our lives. To be able to highlight that in a dramatic way is one of the things books can do. And I think they should. It’s one of their roles.”

Of course, he says, that’s “a lot of freight for a thriller to carry, and I’m not trying to suggest that each of these books is War and Peace. But I think that every book has the right to bring up questions, and I would be pleased to think that my books made people think, one way or another.”

Regarding Shanghai in particular, he says, “I would love people to take away how hard it was for these people, but also how easy it is to slide, how we need to be alert to the moral aspects of what we’re doing.” 

But, he adds with a laugh, “when I say that, it sounds so sobering. I also want people to have a good time reading this! To me, the most fascinating part of the book is crime and politics being flip sides of the same coin . . . and ultimately, you really want people to take away a sense of the characters. Did these people live for you during the period when you were spending time with them? That’s what it’s about.”

Photo of Joseph Kanon by Chad Griffith.

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By Joseph Kanon
ISBN 9781668006429

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