SHANGHAI  INCIDENT & Other Stories, by Gary Lovisi

    Dan Roberts, friend and book collector extraordinaire, turned me onto this book and when Dan recommends – I listen!  And I’m glad I did.

    The book in question is by a fellow named Steve Dodge, who I had never heard of before.  (He’s not to be confused with the better-known crime author, David Dodge.)  Steve Dodge only wrote the one novel – but it’s a good one.  And as I did a little research about this Steve Dodge fellow, I discovered that there was more to the story.

    Shanghai Incident by Steve Dodge, Gold Medal Book #456, is a paperback original from January, 1955 with nice cover art by Lou Kimmel.  The book is a hard crime and spy novel.  It’s worth reading.  It’s also the only novel written by this author – but as things turn out – he is actually the suspense and adventure novelist, Stephen Becker.  I know this because Shanghai Incident was reprinted by Gold Medal Books (#994) in April, 1960, under the author’s true name.  This second printing also has the added bonus of being graced by beautiful Robert McGinnis cover art showing a gorgeous blonde dame – the femme fatale of the novel – shown more prominently and stunning than in Kimmel’s cover for the first printing.  There is also a back cover photo of Becker on this reprint – so Dodge is Becker.

    Shanghai Incident, a fine spy novel, tells the story of David Chapman, who is an old China hand and OSS undercover agent.  (Office of Strategic Services – the precursor to the CIA run by Wild Bill Donovan.)  Chapman had parachuted into China in the closing days of World War II to ‘fix’ a few things, and he’s been ‘fixing’ things for his boss at the Agency ever since.  The story takes place in 1948, a year before Mao’s communists are poised to take over the mainland and steep it in glorious red revolution – along with war and death and murder and the loss of all freedom.  But that’s neither here nor there concerning Chapman’s story, just a bit of background.  Chapman’s been sent back to look for a missing scientist with a secret – the secret and the scientist have mysteriously disappeared.  Chapman is a tough guy but thoughtful, an interesting mix in a hero, and the book moves with intrigue and style.

    What begins as a tough hard-boiled novel about murder turns into a spy story and eventually becomes a fine noir thriller, especially once the gorgeous and mysterious blonde femme fatale, Anne Nichols, enters the picture.  Chapman, of course, falls for her, and apparently, she falls for him too – but I think it might be safe to say (and I’m not letting out too much here) that she may have ulterior motives.  There are also a lot of other well-drawn characters in this book, such as ‘businessmen’ who are involved in politics and spying and other unsavory acts, such as in the black market.

    There is also Cheng, a smart and tough Chinese cop who grew up before the war in Seattle, so he speaks English like a pro, and his relationship with the wise-cracking Chapman makes for some enjoyable moments and interesting banter.  Cheng is a very engaging character, and the author reveals his love of China and the Chinese people through Cheng.  In fact, I wouldn’t mind reading a book with him as the main protagonist at all.  Sadly, Becker never wrote one.

    Cheng’s relationship with Chapman put me in mind of the best scenes with Humphrey Bogart and Claude Reins (as Rick and Captain Renault) in the famous film, CASABLANCA.  They make an interesting pair, and when you throw in the lovely Anne Nichols, you have all the ingredients for some interesting things to happen.  And they do.  Once Chapman leaves China – which is when Becker himself left in 1948 or 1949 – he tells us about it in this heartfelt passage on page 156:

    I was almost crazy, my face like a kid’s hot against the cold window glass, my eyes almost crossing, straining for a last look at the city, my city, at Shanghai, at the towers and hovels and colors and people, and the whole sprawling confusion of it, the specks moving and the lines dimming and the buildings smaller and smaller and then behind me, and somewhere among that was Anne, Anne, my God, Anne—

    Stephen Becker was born in 1927 and died in 1999.  And while “Steve Dodge” isn’t a name to conjure with, Stephen Becker, as it turns out, certainly is.  In fact, Becker went on to write many fine novels, many of them about China, Asia, and various wars.  All were popular and well received.  However, Shanghai Incident isn’t Becker’s first book.  Four years earlier, and published under his own name, was The Season of The Stranger (Harper Books, 1951), set during the communist takeover in China, just two years earlier.  In fact, Becker himself spent 1947 and 1948 in Peking, and like the hero in Season, he probably left when the communists took over.

    Becker is also the author of The Chinese Bandit (Random House, 1975), the first book in his popular Far East Trilogy, and in which a U.S. Marine in China turns bandit and seeks a black market fortune.  The other two books in this trilogy are The Last Mandarin (Random House, 1979), where in 1949 adventurer Jack Burnham goes to China to track down a Japanese war criminal responsible for the Rape of Nanking in 1933.  The third novel, The Blue-Eyed Shan (Random House, 1982), also takes place in 1949, as an anthropologist returns to China on a treasure hunt.  John Irving said of this last book in the trilogy, that it is “…that rare book…a work of literary perfection and sublime entertainment.”

    Becker’s other novels include A Rendezvous in Haiti (Norton, 1987), about a U.S. Marine in Haiti in 1919, fighting insurgents; The Outcasts (Athenaeum, 1967), a comic-tragic novel about an American engineer building a bridge in the tropics; Juice (Simon & Schuster, 1958), a novel about man’s lust for power generated by money and politics and his refusal to be bought; A Covenant With Death (Athenaeum, 1964) the story of murder in the American Southwest in 1923; Dog Tags (Random House, 1973), a heroic and ironic novel of what happened to Korean War POWs; and
When the War is Over (Random House, 1969), a novel based on a historical fact, the execution of a young Confederate boy by a Union Army firing squad 32 days after the Civil War ended!

    Other Stephen Becker books include the excellent Comic Art in America (Simon & Schuster, 1959) and several well-received biographies.  One of these was about the politician and businessman Marshall Field III, and there were translations of two books by famed author and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: The Forgotten and The Town Beyond The Wall.  There were also at least three uncollected short stories in 1964 for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Obviously Stephen Becker worked in many diverse areas in the writing field and left an impressive body of quality work.

    Shanghai Incident turns out to be one of his most expensive paperbacks, but that’s not saying much, as most of his paperback editions can be found for less than $10.  The Gold Medal paperback original (as by Steve Dodge) could cost you about $10 to $25.  The second Gold Medal printing under the author’s true name, and with Robert McGinnis cover art, could run about $10 to $30.

    Becker’s hardcover firsts are not out of reach for most readers and collectors.  Most go for reasonable prices and can be obtained for $20 to $50 or so.  They’re certainly worth looking for to read and collect.  Becker was a fine writer and even became the translator of the memoirs of a Nobel Peace Prize winner!

    So from that rather humble and obscure beginning of a noir-spy novel for Gold Medal Books in 1955 under pseudonym – great things can happen to some writers.  And they did for this one.  Since I learned that Shanghai Incident’s Steve Dodge is Stephen Becker, I have been on the lookout for some of his other books.  I hope this short article will make his books pique your interest as well.  They’re well worth your attention.

    - GARY LOVISI is an Edgar Award nominated  mystery author, editor of Hardboiled and Paperback Parade magazines and founder of Gryphon Books.  To find out more or contact him, see his web site:
       Copyright 2005 by Gary Lovisi.     


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