Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

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Midnight in PekingMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French (Penguin, 2012)

Blurb: In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

 

From the afterword, “The Writing of Midnight in Peking”: I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography…a footnote made reference to Edgar’s wife Helen feeling nervous after Pamela’s mutilated body was found not far from the Snows’ house in Peking…the footnote also mentioned fox spirits, a “love cult,” the fact that Pamela’s father had once been a British consul in China, and that the murder was never solved.

Inspired by that footnote, French began the research that resulted in Midnight in Peking. While the book focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner, French places that event into context: the lead-up to the Sino-Japanese war, which resulted in the occupation of parts of northern China by the Japanese during World War II. The murder investigation was complicated by the ever-changing political and social situation in the city and was essentially abandoned after the Japanese invasion, with no real attempt to identify the killer.

Pamela’s father, however, was unwilling to accept that his daughter’s murderer could not be found, and he conducted his own private investigation, sending updates to the British government in the hopes they would take action. During his research, French uncovered many of those updates and the responses, which seem to indicate that the British authorities not only failed to conduct a proper investigation into Pamela’s murder, but in fact engaged in a cover-up: among the participants French identifies in his “reconstruction” of the murder was a well-known Western expat.

French is able to incorporate a lot of detail into the book without letting it bog down the story. He gives just enough political and social history of Peking to allow the reader to understand how the murder of a white girl—the daughter of a former British consul, no less—could be shocking, yet not a priority for the British or Chinese police after the initial investigation.

The one major flaw in this book is the lack of a good map. There are so many references to Peking’s streets and major landmarks, and having a visual reference would have been extremely helpful. An antique map (I think; couldn’t get a good look at it) appeared on the endpaper, but as with many hardcover library books, was obscured by the book jacket, library labels, etc. and was unusable as a reader reference.

 

My rating: 4 stars

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2 responses »

    • I’m not sure I would have minded so much had it not been a library book, but I literally could not see more than a square inch of the map, which made it difficult to visualize the location. But that was a minor annoyance for such a good book!

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