In the early months of 1931, the world was a very different place. There was no Nazi regime in Germany, Japan hadn’t invaded Manchuria, and Stalin was solidifying his power within the Soviet Union. It is on this world stage where That Evening in Shanghai by Paul Thorne is set.
Hugh Cardell, an American engineer finds himself unemployed after a job prospect falls through in China. Deciding to kill some time in the Orient, Hugh spends a few days in Shanghai where he encounters a blonde woman in a green dress, pursued by sinister persons.
The woman is revealed to be a fellow American, a Miss Doris Winthrop, and one of her pursuers is the German, Captain Kolhbach. When Doris mistakes Hugh for a US diplomat named ‘Mr. Huntington’, who Hugh shares a striking resemblance to, the stage is set for a plot involving one of Hitchcock’s favorite tropes; the average man drawn into a vast conspiracy beyond his control. To make it more Hitchcockian, the plot involves a MacGuffin in the form of a secret document that “Mr. Huntington” currently possesses and everyone else wants.
Doris Winthrop is actually Mr. Huntington’s assistant, who is searching Shanghai on a rumor that said document has shown up in Shanghai. This is an odd plot point, as Doris is basically sent to the city as a decoy on Huntington’s orders to draw out any would-be pursuers. But from a writer’s perspective, it actually serves as the inciting incident to get Hugh Cardell and Doris to meet, setting off the plot.
The other players are the inept Japanese spy Nugimoto, and the mysterious and nationally ambiguous John Baine, who ominously warns that the document could cause a “second world war”. When Doris heads back to the US Embassy in Tokyo, a love-smitten Hugh follows her. There he meets Mr. Huntington who is mysteriously murdered and Hugh discovers the MacGuffin everyone is chasing; an edict from the Emperor, ordering the assassination of various heads of state.
The Japanese are portrayed as antagonists for Hugh but not so much as villains. Their secret service chief, Viscount Inakichi, is a competent adversary, especially when compared to his bumbling subordinate Nugimoto, but also an honorable gentleman. When challenging Hugh for the MacGuffin documents, Inakichi promises Doris would not be harmed, which Hugh never doubts. It is interesting that the Japanese are written in an almost positive light and while they are obstacles for Hugh, they are civilized gentlemen when compared to the yellow peril monsters they would become in American fiction post-1941.
As is the case with many romances of this time period, Hugh decides he’s fallen in love with Doris after only knowing her a few days and she agrees to marry him. Complicating matters is the Spanish Countess Alvarez, who is working for Viscount Inakichi. Hugh is typical of protagonists of this time period, stoic and inoffensive, although there are some sarcastic remarks that give him a little personality. Doris Winthrop is pretty bland and their romance is as convincing as papier-mâché.
Through American ingenuity, Hugh and Doris manage to escape Japan and make their way to Washington DC, pursued by Captain Kolhbach and the mysterious John Baine. There, in a hotel room, Hugh is captured by the two men who tie him up and decide how best to eliminate him and retrieve the document, now in a hotel lockbox. Just when all hope is lost, John Baine reveals himself to be an undercover agent with the United States Secret Service and arrests Kolhbach. Readers of old dime novels such as the Nick Carter series will be familiar with the portrayal of the Secret Service as a hybrid of an espionage, counterespionage, and law enforcement organization. This is before the Bureau of Investigation became the “FBI” in 1935 and rose to public consciousness thanks to J. Edgar Hoover’s marketing blitz.
Upon delivering the MacGuffin document to the President, Hugh marries Doris and settles down in New York City, reminiscing about the titular night in Shanghai. Shortly later, they receive a letter from John Baine that finally explains what exactly the Emperor’s edict was. Turns out it was an elaborate forgery in which the Emperor of Japan orders the assassination of several heads of state. The document emanated from the “Russian Soviet Government” in an effort to “convert, or subvert, the world!” Captain Kolbach turns out to be a mercenary and a “relic of Prussian militarism” After the war, he found himself cashiered out of the German Army and eventually found work for the Communists.
A couple of notes here:
- The contents of MacGuffin document are revealed far too late for any emotional resonance. Hugh finds the Emperor’s “edict” and reads it in the middle of the novel, but the reader is kept in the dark. Showing it earlier would have raised the stakes, introduced a new twist, and clued the reader into why the Japanese wanted it. Instead, we keep hearing about how important the MacGuffin document is but are never shown why until at the end, when we are wrapping up. It would have added more drama and conflict to let us the readers know about the Emperor’s edict midway, then toward the end, Hugh deduces it is actually a forgery. However, novels back in 1931 didn’t have the same structure that modern thrillers do.
- It is the Communists, specifically the Soviets, who are presented as the true enemies of international peace. This is a mindset that was very prevalent in the 1920s and early 1930s and elaborated on in books like The Red Napoleon. Again, not to harp on this, but I find it so interesting that the Japanese are not the true villains but accidental antagonists due to Communist subversion. Hugh Cardell even sends Viscount Inakichi a friendly postcard at the end! What a difference ten years makes.
I found a used copy of That Evening in Shanghai in a library and it is long out of print. I would recommend picking up a copy cheap if you can find it, just out because it is such an interesting time capsule of 1931, when a “second world war” was not inevitable.