Thursday, May 17, 2012

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

Penguin, 2012
(first published by Penguin Australia, 2011)
259 pp
(hardcover ed)

[note: for a more visual approach to this book, don't miss the author's website.]

Part history, part cold-case mystery, Midnight in Peking began literally as a footnote the author happened to read in a biography of Edgar Snow,  an American journalist and author who may likely have been the first western journalist to interview Mao Zedong. As the author notes in his "The Writing of Midnight in Peking," a brief piece added to the book after the main story, mention was made of Snow's wife Helen, who was nervous due to the discovery of the body of young Pamela Werner not too far from where the Snows lived.  The footnote also indicated that Pamela's father was a former British consul in China, and that the murder of Pamela had remained unsolved.  With only these few facts to go on, and an inability to stop thinking about Pamela Webster, French started tracking down the long-forgotten story.   By chance, one day at the National Archives at Kew, French came across an uncatalogued file in one of several boxes of "random correspondence sent from Peking  during the years 1941-45," where he realized that he'd discovered details of the private investigation made by Pamela's father, E.T.C. Werner, who'd tried to solve the case on his own after authorities failed to do so. As it turns out, Werner's inquiries would provide a key that would unlock what may have really happened that fateful night back in January of 1937.  While the mystery of who may have killed Pamela Werner unfolds in this book, the author also unravels Peking's social and political history, which  helps to place into context the events surrounding  and following her untimely death.  

On January 8, 1937,  Pamela Werner's  body was discovered near the city's Fox Tower. Although there was little blood at the scene, Pamela had been severely beaten & cut, and her internal organs had been removed.  The motive was not rape -- there was no evidence of sexual assault, nor was there any evidence that her death was the result of a robbery, since she was wearing a very expensive watch when she was found.  The night before, Pamela  had failed to return home, and her father had been out looking for her into the wee hours of the morning.  After going home to get some rest,  Werner was back out again on the streets looking for her as the  day dawned.  He started at the edge of the Legation Quarter, followed the Tatar Wall toward the Fox Tower, and seeing a crowd gathering, went to see what was happening. It was then he discovered that everyone was standing around a corpse, who as fate would have it, turned out to be his missing daughter. 

Pamela's death was no ordinary murder case -- au contraire -- it was a very high-profile investigation since Werner had been a British diplomat up until some twenty-plus years earlier when he was recalled to London and his career had come to an end.   His wife had died under mysterious circumstances when Pamela was five; since that time, he and his daughter had been living in a neighborhood just outside the Legation Quarter. Werner had a reputation as an outsider and recluse, preferring his books and scholarship to the company of others in the expat community inside the Quarter.  He was widely disliked, especially by the British consul, which tended to complicate the investigation into Pamela's murder.   The inquiries into Pamela's death proceeded immediately, but it was hampered from the outset.  The two chief investigators, Colonel Han Shih-ching,  of the Peking Bureau of Public Safety South East Section,  and DCI Richard Dennis, brought in  from Tientsin’s British Concession as an envoy to monitor the investigation, found their hands increasingly tied.  Many witnesses refused to say anything or just vanished; others who might have had connections were never questioned.  They received a number of fake confessions, and  some native Chinese believed that her death was the work of "fox spirits."  Han had no authority inside the Legation Quarter, and when Dennis requested permission to conduct searches there, he was turned down -- it seems that the Administrative Commission of the Diplomatic Quarter, the British Legation and the current British consul felt that a "search of Chinese Peking would be sufficient."  Han pursued enquiries in an area near the legation known as "The Badlands," a veritable district of iniquity,   home to other another class of foreigners, many of them White Russians serving as pimps, prostitutes, owners of gambling dens, and other shady goings on.   It was a  place where " peroxide-blonde White Russians past their prime raised their sketched-on eyebrows and offered ‘business’ to the semi-comatose, the paralytic, the close to broke."  And it was also where Pamela was likely murdered before being dumped at the Fox Tower.

But with the Japanese moving closer to Peking, some scant nine miles away, the city became "obsessed with its own survival," in the face of daily assassinations, and among other things,  a "guerrila war...being fought on the streets of the city."  Leads in Pamela's case were growing scarce; links DCI Dennis had  made between possible suspects couldn't be linked directly to her murder, and in July, 1937, the Japanese finally entered Peking,  ending the official search for Pamela's killer.  Unofficially, Pamela's father never let go of the case; he hired his own eyes and ears, emptying his bank account, but ultimately he did get answers.  It is Werner's story and his conclusions that really grab the reader's attention, woven in and among the social and political history of Peking up through the Japanese occupation. 

It is very obvious that French has done an immense amount of research, doggedly pursuing police reports, newspaper articles and correspondence to reconstruct this brief episode. He writes that he "rechecked every false scent and misguided trail, every officious injunction from the British authorities" in putting together this book about Pamela's death, in the hopes that  "some sort of justice, however, belated, be awarded her."  At the same time, it is no dry history that has to be slogged through -- his writing brings old Peking alive and gives life to a murder case that began as a mere footnote.  And while the book may not actually read like a fast-paced thriller as some have noted,  the mystery of who killed Pamela Werner, and especially her father's dogged determination to find her killer are enough to keep anyone from setting it down for any length of time.  This book goes well beyond the usual "true-crime" sort of novel to become a compelling read in terms of a crime, a city, and the devotion of a father to his daughter.  

Highly recommended.


  1. A pity then that Paul French invents alot of the decisions taken by different people. I found that most of it was conjecture, which is passed off as historical fact. Some pretty basic errors taint the authenticity of anything he writes.

    Sadly the evidence was not adequate in a criminal court; it isnt helpful for the author to claim the police were corrupt, etc etc in a work claiming to be nonfiction.

    As fiction...I've read better, but then there is also worse out there.

  2. Hi Nancy
    I thought you might be interested in the following link I found:, as it has alot of archive stuff not referenced in the book.
    Did you know that French changed the date of Pamela's dental appointment from 1930 (yes...1930) December 1936 (yes...1936)?! I was amazed. Why would he do that?

    It would be great if you could share the link for other readers.

    1. Shared it is, but as I told one of your compatriots on Goodreads, Mr. French never claimed that this was THE story -- it is his own compilation of what might have happened. As I also said on Goodreads, write a book and then we'll talk. I'm sure you and your friends are having a great time spending lots of energy on trying to convince everyone that this writer was full of crap; I haven't seen this much venomous effort being put forth on discrediting a writer since Dave Cullen published Columbine.

      If you write a book, send me a copy and I'll give it air time.