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Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

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In the afterword to his historical true crime tale Midnight in Peking, Paul French describes how he first heard about the unsolved murder and mutilation of the young adopted daughter of a retired British diplomat and China scholar, Pamela Werner, in Peking back in 1937 in a footnote to Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. He puts the book down, and falls asleep, he tells us, and when he wakes the next morning, the first thing he thinks of is the murder. His conclusion: “When something casually read remains in the front of your brain the morning afterwards, it’s usually the sign of a great tale.” And French is right.

On the morning of January 7 following the celebrations of the Russian Orthodox Christmas, the body of a young school girl is discovered in a rubbish-strewn area on the edge of what we would probably call Peking’s red light district. Chinese police are called to the scene. Very quickly an elderly Brit who has been out searching for his young daughter missing since yesterday afternoon when she left to go ice skating with friends, identifies the body. Since the victim is British, a detective with a Scotland Yard background working in another Chinese city is brought in to coordinate and observe, although he is given instructions not to take an active role. The investigation and its failure, the bureaucratic interference, and the father’s eventual search for the truth after the case had been closed make for a powerful page-turning narrative.

The Peking of the late thirties was a city that reflected in small the political turmoil that was engulfing the larger world. There was an internal conflict in China between the Nationalists and the revolutionary Communists. A militaristic Japan was making aggressive moves on the country. The city was filled with refugees, White Russians fleeing Stalin and Jews fleeing Hitler, many of them with neither papers or means of support. Many of the Chinese locals were both superstitious and distrustful of foreigners. Representatives of other countries, diplomats and business people led lives of privilege separated from the native population. There was a thriving dark side that catered to thrill seekers and criminals looking for drugs and sex. If ever there was a place ripe for a vicious murder, Peking was that place.

French fills his story with the kind of unforgettable details that give it a life that jumps off the page. There are the exotic details that define the place: the fox spirit superstitions of the Chinese locals, the early morning walkers taking their caged songbirds for a morning stroll. There are the salacious tidbits: the suspicious American dentist who runs an annual nudist colony, the hermaphrodite who passes at times for a man, at times a woman. There are the stomach-turning details of the autopsy and the young girl’s mutilations.

He draws on a cast of characters that runs the gamut from what seems like a committed professional policeman who wants to do his job but is thwarted by pompous bureaucrats, to a grief stricken iconoclast unwilling to tow the political line. The book is filled with pimps, prostitutes and addicts — the denizens of the dark side, as well as the pampered elites filling the clubs, courts, and fields, vestiges of the colonial past. And as often as not, it turns out that the high and the mighty are as unsavory, if not more so than the dregs and outcasts, whether a schoolmaster who makes indecent proposals to his young charges, or the supervisors who cover it up. Diplomats are more concerned with protecting their image than finding a killer. Police are flunkies who are either incompetent or undermining their investigations deliberately. Socially prominent people are living secret lives. As in life, it is nearly impossible to tell the good guys from the bad, the lies from the truth. It makes for very effective narrative.

Although officially the case was closed and never solved, Pamela’s father spent many years conducting his own investigations, investigations that were never given any official legitimacy by any of the government agencies. Based on these investigations, thoroughly described in the book, French ends with his own construct of what happened to Pamela on that night in Peking. It is a very convincing analysis, and provides a very satisfying conclusion to the story, a story that reads with all the tension of a fictional thriller.

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