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Interview: April 27, 2012

In MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, historian and China expert Paul French recounts the true story of a long-forgotten murder case in colonial Peking. When the city was on the verge of Japanese attack in 1937, a young woman was brutally murdered --- but the case went unsolved for years. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, French discusses his in-depth research into Chinese history, in addition to the history of the case. He also talks about how the book has been received in China, shares his opinions on the Chinese government today as it compares to colonial government in Peking, and reveals one of his greatest influences. MIDNIGHT IN PEKING centers on the murder of a teenage girl named Pamela Werner and its subsequent investigation. One of the more fascinating elements of your account is the manner in which the investigation was conducted. The Chinese were officially in charge of the investigation, while the British could observe. Yet representatives of both countries were limited in what they could investigate, and where. If Pamela’s murder had occurred in contemporary times, what do you think would be done differently? Would such differences have resulted in the murderer being brought to justice? 

Paul French: Pamela was a victim of history and the great sweep of world events. Everyone --- the Chinese police, the foreign community, the British Embassy --- was nervous as Peking was surrounded by the Japanese army. By January 1937 it was not a question of if, but rather when, Japan would invade China. Pamela’s death ratcheted up the fear level a new notch. If a European girl from a privileged family wasn’t safe in Peking in 1937, then who was? Right now, it might actually be even harder to investigate a similar case as the Chinese government and police are far less willing to cooperate than they were in 1937. As your next question suggests, there is invariably a lot more at stake for some people than simply bringing a killer to justice.

BRC: On a related note, a British businessman named Neil Heywood was found dead in his hotel room in Chongqing in Southwest China several months ago. His official cause of death was apparently alcohol poisoning, or a heart attack, but it is thought in some quarters that he may have been murdered by a local politician who since has been dismissed from the Politburo and the Central Committee. Do you see any parallels between the politically-related obstruction that impeded the investigation into Pamela’s murder and what is taking place currently with the investigation into Heywood’s death?

PF: The Neil Heywood case is odd indeed --- almost as if Graham Greene had returned from the grave and decided to write a novel about contemporary China! In 1937, the British government effectively refused to cooperate in the investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner, a British subject. It seems the British authorities felt that the preservation of British “face” in a time of impending war was more important than justice for Pamela. Now, in the Neil Heywood case, the British government has been, and seemingly remains, extremely cautious and reticent to get involved, fearing that causing any trouble may hurt Britain’s trade relationship with China at a moment where we’re rather hoping they’ll help bail us out of recession! I think most of us would think that justice for the individual would be the main priority for our leaders, but I’m not sure that’s how diplomats and government officials always see things, in any country.

BRC: While we all know the importance of forensic science in today’s crime solving, some very forward-thinking techniques were available in 1937. In the course of your research, did this surprise you?

PF: I was surprised at how well trained and expert the Peking Detective Bureau was in 1937 and how well both the English, Scotland Yard-trained, DCI Dennis worked with Colonel Han. Both men had significant experience of murder investigations. However, it also became clear how limited the investigation was by the lack of advanced science  --- they couldn’t take fingerprints from skin, they couldn’t type dry blood and, of course, they had no way to extract DNA. There was no CSI in 1937!!

BRC: Is Pamela’s death well-known in China, or is it all but forgotten? And did you encounter any resistance from the local authorities while writing this book?

PF: The murder had been completely forgotten. Of course, this is the last gasp of the old China --- after July 1937 and the Japanese invasion China fought until 1945, then reverted to civil war until the Communist victory in 1949 after which the “Bamboo Curtain” came down and China effectively withdrew into itself for three decades of Maoist isolation. At the time, in 1937, Pamela was front-page news around the world, but history caught up and overtook her as China, Europe and then the United States and the whole world descended into total war. Suddenly, one girl’s murder was eclipsed by the horrors that engulfed Europe and Asia.

However, this does mean that the current government isn’t too worried about the book. It’s before 1949 when they came to power --- ancient history to Beijing now! I’m thrilled that there’s a Chinese language edition being published and that early readers in China have found it a slice of Peking history that they too didn’t know about and find interesting.

BRC: I found your account of the neighbourhoods of Peking in 1937 to be even more interesting than the murder itself, which is fascinating in its own right. As I was reading, I could imagine any number of plots for novels that could be based on your accounts of the vice carried out in the areas such as The Tartar City and the characters --- colorful, to say the least --- who were involved in such trafficking. Have you considered writing crime fiction based on the knowledge that you acquired during the course of your research?  

PF: How very intuitive of you!! I’m now writing a short follow-up covering the back stories of some of the minor, but intriguing, characters in the book, especially those that inhabited the notorious Badlands district that features in the book --- the prostitutes and pimps, the brothel madams and drug dealers, the bosses of the Badlands and the dancing girls who graced the stages of the district in the 1930s. So many readers told me they were interested in hearing more about these people, how they ended up in the Peking Badlands, their lives, loves and eventual fates that I thought it worth doing.

BRC: The China that you describe during the 1930s is very tumultuous, one at siege from without and revolt from within. How would you compare 1930s China with the China of today? And what do you think China will look like, from a political standpoint, in 10 years? 

PF: China now may be hard to understand, but it’s nowhere near as unstable as it was in 1937. Today we discuss whether or not China’s economic growth will continue, can China help the West out of recession, will the Communist Party adapt and survive or be swept from power at some point? In 1937, the very survival of China and the Chinese people in the face of all-out attack from Japan was the issue. It was by no means clear that China could resist Japan. What was clear in 1937 was that if China collapsed, then Britain would not be able to defend Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya and that would leave two Pacific powers facing each other --- Japan and America. And that’s what happened, and it took many long years and sacrifices to put that nasty genie back in the box.

Now China does not face any outside threat as it did in the 1930s. The challenge today for the Communist Party is to successfully manage growth and change –-- the growth will need to be better organised in the future if China is to protect its environment and sustainability; the change will be the rise of a new middle class that will make more and new demands on the Party as this group becomes richer and more self-confident. It’s going to be a fascinating decade, but, though I’m absolutely not an apologist for the Communist Party, I’d recommend we watch closely. The Party is a pragmatic and canny bunch who’ve not survived this long without being able to adapt when necessary and fight back viciously when essential.

BRC: Once you concluded your research, what sort of schedule did you make and keep while writing MIDNIGHT IN PEKING? Or were you doing both simultaneously? 

PF: I researched the whole story --- the characters, the locations, the investigation…and the solution denied to the case 76 years ago. I then sat back, let it stew in my brain for a bit and then switched off the phone, unplugged the Internet, told everyone I was incommunicado and wrote the first draft of the book in a few months –-- it just came pouring out after about five or six years of thought. A strangely effortless process actually, which was exhausting but satisfying.

BRC: Your other works of nonfiction, while dealing with aspects of China, are very different from MIDNIGHT IN PEKING. How did your research in preparing for the writing of this book differ from the research you conducted for your other works?

PF: The research process was exactly the same really --- “leave no stone unturned.” I’m glad that was my motto as it was quite late in the day that I came across lost documents in the British government archives that pointed the way towards the killers and the conclusion of the case. In the past I’ve written straightforward non-fiction, as I didn’t really feel confident enough to write in a literary style. However, I wanted the reader to identify with Pamela as a young woman at the start of what should have been a great and fruitful life, her last days and murder, as well as to help them enter the complicated and exotic world of Peking and China in the late 1930s. Literary nonfiction seemed the best way to do it. The reader will have to decide whether the approach worked or not!

BRC: I recently learned that MIDNIGHT IN PEKING will be filmed as a mini-series for British television. Will you be involved in any phase of the production? If you could, who would you like to see cast for the various roles in the series?

PF: I really do hope they want me to be involved. They’re hiring a professional, and previously very successful, scriptwriter, but I hope to be hired as a consultant to work with the writers, director and cast on the historical background and accuracy. We all know Brit TV is pretty good at historical drama, and I think there’s a real chance for it to be a spectacular show that people internationally will love too --- the portrayal of 1930s Peking could be really lavish and original. The problem is that Britain is really spoilt for choice when it comes to acting talent --- an embarrassment of riches, you might say. There are so many great actors who could play Pamela’s crusading father --- Anthony Hopkins, Michael Gambon, Jeremy Irons…the list really is endless. But there’s also a couple of crucial roles for American actors too --- good and bad guys! Pamela was only 19, so I hope they’ll find a great new star actress to launch her career as Pamela.

BRC: You have lived in China for many years. What originally drew you there as a place of residence and as a topic for your books, including MIDNIGHT IN PEKING? If you weren’t living in China, what would be your second choice for a country of residency? 

PF: I was a student of Chinese back in England at university --- language, history and culture --- and developed a deep fascination with the country. I live in Shanghai and write about contemporary China as my day job and books in the evenings and weekends, so I really do do China for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I never get tired or any less fascinated with China; there’s always an amazing story just around the corner. However, another great love of my life is Paris --- I relax by endlessly reading books about the city’s history (there’s a whole industry of Paris books!). Just give me a nice apartment on the Left Bank above a traditional café, a good pair of walking shoes so I can stroll the city all day, every day, and a comfy couch to sit back and read the entire works of Hemingway looking out at a Paris street at dusk, perhaps with a little view of the River Seine if possible.

BRC: You are a business writer and an analyst, as well as a journalist and author. Is there anyone in particular who has influenced your career in any or all of those endeavors? 

PF: There is….and I wrote his biography back in 2005: an American from Missouri called Carl Crow, who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and came to Shanghai in 1911 to work on an American-funded newspaper. He arrived just as the 267-year-old Qing Dynasty was being overthrown by Dr Sun Yat-sen and the Chinese Republic declared. Carl developed a deep love of China; he knew everyone who was anyone, from warlord bandits to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, founded China’s first advertising agency, wrote a dozen great books about China and during World War II worked for the American government to support China against Japan. Look him up –-- Carl Crow was the original American “Old China Hand” who resisted all the colonialist nonsense about the Chinese, loved the country and its people, and never regretted one day of his 25 years in Shanghai.

BRC: All great writers tend to be great readers as well. What do you like to read? Do you read mysteries? By whom? And what books of any genre have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

PF: I love to read and re-read the great English inter-war writers; they are my best literary friends –-- Graham Greene, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Patrick Hamilton primarily. I am also a regular re-reader of the great American noir writers – Chandler, Hammett, James M Cain –-- as well as contemporary American noir stylists such as James Ellroy and Megan Abbott. I love writers who can create great ambience and sense of place –-- I have to pay a debt to Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, which showed me true crime could be a serious genre if done well. I’m a fan of Eric Ambler and John le Carre, the two great masters of the spy novel. I eagerly await books from Alan Furst –-- he amazes me by his ability to conjure a Europe on the brink of war in such succinct writing and maintain tension, even though we know how the stories must end ultimately.

BRC: What American authors are best known in China? And what Chinese authors and novels are currently popular there? What is the state of genre fiction, such as mysteries and thrillers, in China? And to what degree and extent is what’s published affected by government censure?

PF: To be honest, I don’t think Chinese readers are reading a lot of American fiction right now. But they are reading business and nonfiction writers. I imagine Thomas Friedman is doing pretty well out of his Chinese royalties! However, they do read foreign writers if they can relate to their stories –-- I know many Chinese women who enjoyed and empathised with Irish writer Colm Toibin’s recent novel, BROOKLYN. For a society where so many women have moved from small villages in rural areas to the manufacturing towns of the coastal provinces and seen their lives and expectations turned upside down, the story of a girl from a small, conservative Irish village emigrating to Brooklyn, navigating a gigantic city, working in a department store where she meets people unimaginable to her back in Ireland resonates strongly. Just about to appear in English is Chinese writer Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, all about a group of naïve country girls heading to the big city with all the pitfalls and perils that entails –-- it’s funny, poignant and a great picture of China’s great internal migration as it’s happening now. Seek it out.

Genre fiction has traditionally been weak in China, but I know that there are a few Chinese police procedurals now being written and being bought for translation –-- certainly cop shows are popular on TV, and everyone watches CSI on pirated DVD! Of course, the government ultimately censures what is published, and some work and writers gets banned. But Chinese literary fiction is, I would suggest, far more broad than many think –-- look for writers like Bi Feiyu, who just won the Man Asia Prize, and is really at the top of his game right now. They do not compromise, and work and live within the system writing superb and challenging literature.

BRC: Are you working on anything now? What can you tell us about your next project? 

PF: I wasn’t looking for Pamela, Pamela found me –-- I was working on a book about Shanghai, where I live, and its amazing role in the 1930s and ’40s. I’m finishing my short work on the characters of the Peking Badlands, and then I’m changing over to write about Shanghai in its most glorious phase.

Shanghai was a city that rivalled Chicago for gangsterism, nightclubs, instant riches, murder and kidnapping. The Shanghai Badlands were vast and ruled over by a number of gangs of foreigners who ran casinos, drug dens and brothels. They eventually went to war with each other and with the Japanese army, the Chinese collaborationist government and the police in the middle of their gun battles. It’s jazz, girls, cabarets, casinos, crime and easy money all just months before Pearl Harbor when their world came crashing to a sudden end. It’s another lost story that, just like the murder of Pamela Werner, demands to be told, and I’m having great fun writing it. I hope it’s going to be a rollercoaster ride through the Badlands of Shanghai and the amazing characters who lived there for a brief incredible time.