Midnight in Peking by Paul French
Looking at Beijing in 2013 – capital of an economic superpower with the world’s largest standing army – it’s hard to believe that a little over 75 years ago it was such a dive. Heavily colonised, bullied by the invading Japanese, a warren of slums and richly populated with opium dens and brothels, Peking as it was known in the 30s was a society in decline. Paul French’s compelling new book, an account of the brutal unsolved murder of British teenager Pamela Werner, drags the reader into its murky heart.
French opens with the discovery of Werner’s eviscerated body underneath Peking’s reputedly haunted Fox Tower. There are no suspects and few clues, and the detectives in charge are allocated 20 days in which to provide results. It sounds like a skeleton outline for a mystery novel and, despite being a comprehensively researched and compiled piece of non-fiction, the book reads like one. Suspect government officials, weary detectives, idealistic journalists, vigilantes, pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes all compete for airtime in French’s taught and well-paced prose. The facts and intrigue he exhumes surrounding the murder and its effects are breathtaking, but these alone would have made for a much shorter, and perhaps better, book.
French has written extensively on pre-war China, publishing three book-length studies for the Hong Kong University Press before embarking on Midnight in Peking. The latter book suffers somewhat from the academic hangover of its predecessors. To be clear, French is a superb historian. He gives detailed accounts of the Boxer Rebellion, the Sino-Japanese War and of British diplomacy in China under the Empire but despite its basis in fact, as a murder mystery such material serves to obscure rather than clarify the story. There are whole passages where French lifts his foot off the accelerator altogether, stopping to admire the scenery rather than push on to the conclusion.
However, perhaps this is appropriate. This is real life after all and the book ends without any grand unmasking or convictions, no justice of any kind. What we’re left with are theories and frustrations and the sad tale of a young life lost in the mess of history.
The editorial unit
Midnight in Peking is published by Penguin Books at the paperback price of £12.99. For further information visit the book’s website here.