Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
It is surprising, even amazing, that the historical true crime book MIDNIGHT IN PEKING works as well as it does. Its dark subject matter (the brutal murder of a teenage English schoolgirl); an unfamiliar setting (Peking in the late 1930s) as Japanese soldiers have all but invaded China; and unusual authorship (Paul French is a financial writer and analyst, as opposed to a mystery writer) would seem to mitigate against success on any number of levels. Yet MIDNIGHT IN PEKING grabs the reader from the first paragraph and reads with all the suspense and immediacy of a work of fiction.
"[T]he success of the book is due to French’s remarkable ability to spark the reader’s interest in events of long ago and far away, and, ultimately, to care about the victim. The book’s last paragraphs are particularly chilling, a dark ending point for a fascinating journey that moves quickly and memorably."
Credit for this is properly and fittingly given to French himself. A treatise concerning itself with the instant subject matter --- a decades-old murder in a foreign country --- could have been an unmitigated disaster in lesser hands. Fortunately, though, French knows his territory, and where to look when researching an event that occurred over 70 years ago. He brings an understated but very real empathy to the table --- not only for the victim, a troubled, high-spirited girl who, as the old saying goes, got in with the wrong crowd, but also for her adoptive, widowed father, a man given to succumbing to his own impulses and excesses but who channeled his grief over his daughter’s death into a relentless search for the truth.
French infuses his description of Peking in the opening days of 1937 with a dark and haunting immediacy, primarily by utilizing his own considerable prosaic talent (not what one might expect from a financial analyst). MIDNIGHT IN PEKING begins with the discovery of a body in the early morning hours of January 8th. It is determined to be that of Pamela Werner, who had been reported as missing by her father, a former British counsel, on the previous night. The murder would have been remarkable in any event, but the violence visited upon the body lends a particularly horrific aspect to the young woman’s death.
The investigation commences almost immediately, but there are complications from the start. The authorities are faced with the death of an Englishwoman in the Chinese section of Peking. As French notes in his narrative, it was the practice when a foreign died under suspicious circumstances in Peking for the appropriate legation (British, in this case) to be invited to nominate an official to monitor the investigation, though with no real power other than as an observer. The task falls to Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, a “copper” through and through who finds himself chafing somewhat under the restrictions he faces. Further, the Chinese official in charge of the investigation --- Colonel Han Shih-Ching --- has no power to interrogate or search members of the British Legation without permission.
The result is that the investigators can get only so close to identifying Pamela’s murderer, but no closer, as they attempt to trace her whereabouts during her last hours of life and ascertain a motive for her murder. What Han and Dennis do discover is that there were two very different Pamela Werners: one a quiet schoolgirl, the other a rebellious spirit beyond her father’s control. The men also uncover a number of secrets beneath the staid surface appearances of the British expatriates in Peking during that time, a tumultuous period during which the Japanese empire was encroaching upon China while the Chinese government’s control of its borders was almost non-existent.
Ultimately, though, the investigation into Pamela’s murder was closed as “unsolved.” Still, her father refused to give up. Throwing his remaining fortune behind his own investigation, the elder Werner channeled his unrelenting grief over the loss of his daughter into the pursuit of her killer and, given that he had no jurisdictional restrictions, came closer than anyone to determining who may well have been behind her death and why.
It was Werner’s notes that provided part of the impetus behind the writing of MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, but the success of the book is due to French’s remarkable ability to spark the reader’s interest in events of long ago and far away, and, ultimately, to care about the victim. The book’s last paragraphs are particularly chilling, a dark ending point for a fascinating journey that moves quickly and memorably.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 26, 2012