Midnight in Peking: How the murder of a young Englishwoman haunted the last days of old China by Paul French
The history of expatriate life in pre-Communist China remains relatively undocumented; the headline dramas of twentieth-century history have understandably tended to distract those writers and academics working on the Middle Kingdom. Paul French, in Midnight in Peking, offers a fascinating portrait of this neglected world, depicting in vivid detail the social milieu of 1930s expatriate Peking—outside and within the Legation Quarter—in the course of solving a seventy-five year old murder-mystery.
On an early January day in 1937, the body of nineteen-year-old Pamela Werner was discovered, eviscerated and bloodless, in the shadow of Peking’s Fox Tower. Pamela was the only child of E. T. C. Werner, a former British consul turned eccentric sinologist—and perhaps the definition of an “old China hand”, having arrived in Peking in the 1880s.
The story of Pamela’s startlingly brutal murder unsurprisingly generated enormous press interest; interest which helped to cultivate exaggerated rumors within the expatriate community as to both the gruesome nature of her death and who might be ultimately responsible for it. High-profile detectives from both the Chinese and British forces were assigned to the case, with swift resolution demanded by those in authority.
Time passed inexorably, however, without such resolution being reached. The police had suspicions and leads—which, as French reveals, would ultimately have led them to Pamela’s killer—but as a result of both incompetence, and a willful refusal by those in charge to address the realities of the case, they were not properly pursued. After the Japanese rolled into the ancient city in July 1937, the murder became merely a footnote in the grander narrative of Chinese history.
It was just such a footnote—in a biography of the journalist Edgar Snow—that first alerted author (and modern day old China hand) Paul French to the tantalising details of the case. The discovery inspired an archival search which, begun with the intention of providing color and detail to an account of Werner’s killing, ultimately resulted in the dramatic identification of a guilty party and the unravelling of a tale of white mischief.
Midnight in Peking is strikingly reminiscent of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, which similarly employed a real-life murder as the narrative motivation for a (heavily fictionalised) tale delineating the hidden moral vices of a supposedly principled community. French lacks the stylistic subtlety of Ellroy, and his writing occasionally lapses into convention, but as with The Black Dahlia, the fusion of the real and the fabricated (for, despite the endnotes which document French’s sources, Midnight in Peking—as with any first person history—does rely on authorial infilling) begets a compelling, disquieting narrative.
Stylistically and formally, Midnight in Peking is not without flaws—in addition to the occasionally contrived prose, I felt that the final section somewhat rushed the reader to a conclusion which could have been profitably delayed. Yet such criticism seems churlish to a degree, for the narrative carries its fascinated reader helplessly along; it kept me turning pages until the early hours.