Sunday, June 10, 2012

Guest Review: Midnight in Peking

Summary: 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?

Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking. -- Penguin

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING: HOW THE MURDER OF A YOUNG ENGLISHWOMAN HAUNTED THE LAST DAYS OF OLD CHINA by Paul French sounded like a perfect book for my dad, and I just had a feeling that he'd appreciate it. Although now I think I want to read it too. Here are his thoughts:
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING by Paul French is an account of the unsolved murder of young Pamela Werner in Peking, China on January 8, 1937.  French was inspired to research and write the story after seeing a brief footnote about the murder in a biography of American journalist Edgar Snow who is most noted for his book Red Star Over China.

Pamela’s body was found near the spiritually haunted Fox Tower, part of Peking’s city wall, severely mutilated with several organs missing. The story shocked both foreign and Chinese residents of Peking and newspapers worldwide carried the story. Because of the high profile nature of the case, (Pamela was the adopted daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former British diplomat and scholar), the British appointed an envoy to monitor the Chinese investigator assigned to the case.  Even though certain suspects were identified, it appeared that the investigation was stymied from the start. Additionally, the British seemed more interested in protecting their prestige than solving the case.  For example, the police had no authority to investigate inside the Legation Quarter, an enclave for foreign residents who lived quite comfortably under their own country’s laws. It’s also possible that the Chinese lead detective may have been compromised with bribes.  Finally the investigators were pulled off the case.

Pamela’s father didn’t accept the closure of the case and proceeded to deplete his life savings to further investigate the case over the next five years.  Werner discovered additional important facts that might have led to solving the murder but his requests to British authorities to reopen the case were continually rejected and the information ignored.  It was this information that French discovered in uncatalogued files in Britain’s National Archives along with police files, newspaper clippings and court testimony that serves as the basis for his novel.

French not only shares critical information regarding the murder but places the reader in pre-war Peking’s social and political environment.  He discusses the invasion from Japan, the introduction of the communist party under Mao Tse-tung and Chiang Kai-shek’s struggle to remain in power.  He shares with the reader the privileged life inside the Legation Quarter with its movie theaters, hotels, restaurants and sex clubs.  The reader also learns of the Badlands that existed not far from the Legation Quarter.  The Badlands were an area of poverty, opium, prostitutes, gangsters and drunken soldiers and sailors.   

The storyline is fascinating.  It includes an eccentric father, a mother who died from a drug overdose, a daughter with a secret life style, illegal sex and drugs, a pompous British embassy, old superstitions, and a Japanese army sitting outside the city of Peking waiting to occupy it.     

In a story full of unusual situations, the most bizarre occurs when E.T.C. Werner was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for five years with the man he believed murdered his daughter.

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING is a terrific novel – part history and part true-crime mystery.  After 75 years Paul French brings a logical closure to the murder of Pamela Werner, one she was denied in 1937.  In doing so, French also provides a portrait of Peking in an exciting and tumultuous time.     

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.

By the way, there is an interesting website devoted to this book as well as a reading guide for book clubs.


bermudaonion said...

I don't read a lot of historical fiction but the true crime and mystery aspects of this book really intrigue me.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

sounds fascinating!

Carol said...

I love historical mysteries, and this would definitely be a new setting for me. I may have to pick it up.