Paul French takes us to 1937 Peking to uncover the mysterious and horrific murder of Pamela Werner in his non-fiction tale Midnight in Peking. This book is a featured title at my bookstore, and of course my curiosity peaked when I read the back blurb. I haven't read much on China or it's history. Mix together the encroaching Japanese forces into China, the foreign elements who live in Peking, and a young girl's bizarre murder and it's just something I have to read! How does it all come together? This real murder is truly stranger than fiction.
Pamela Werner was just 20 years old on January 7, 1937 when her body is found lying in a ditch in front of the Fox Tower, a landmark in Peking which is known by locals as a place haunted by fox spirits. Pamela had not come home from an ice skating date with friends the night before, and her father, E.T.C. Werner had spent the night combing the neighborhoods looking for her. A local traveling by the Fox Tower that morning sees something strange in the ditch, and stops to look. It's Pamela, and she's been horribly murdered. It's quite clear this is a "white" woman, and this is big news in Peking. Soon her father arrives and recognizes his daughter by the clothes she's wearing and her grey eyes. What happened to Pamela?
Peking in 1937 was a seething mass of foreigners living in compounds, poor emigrants living in hovels, and the Chinese working to make a living however they could. French, American, British, and Russians made up a large enclave of people taking advantage of the wealth they could make in Peking. The Badlands was a stretch of whorehouses, opium dens, slums, and bars that the rich visited for kicks, and the rest of Peking either ignored or somehow used to make money. It was a place of secrets, lost hopes, and for most, the last stop.
The Japanese were on the march through China, slowly making their way towards Peking. People knew when the Japanese did arrive, hell on earth would come with them. Yet the foreigners felt they were untouchable, and carried on with their parties, drinking, and living the high life. Pamela's father was a well known British scholar who had lived in China for most of his adult life. He could speak more Chinese dialects that the Chinese who lived in Peking. He preferred to spend his time alone writing papers; he often left Pamela alone at home with the servants while he traveled around China doing research. He was not part of the party crowd, and many people didn't care for him. He was also much older; in his 70's at the time of Pamela's murder.
This book is about the first official investigation into Pamela's death, and the bureaucracy that bungled it so badly it was quickly shelved after 6 months. The Chinese and British investigators were blocked from questioning certain suspects, barred from talking to Werner, and quickly gave up. But Werner himself would not rest, and spent his life savings finding out what happened to Pamela. This is the part of the book that really gets interesting. It's amazing how money makes people talk, especially in times of great political upheaval.
I enjoyed this book because it gave me a peak into a time in Chinese history that I wasn't familiar with--the beginnings of Japanese might and what would lead to World War II. The foreigners in Peking were fascinating; so many people from so many places, all congregating in one city with secrets that continued to haunt them. I had no idea Russians had fled the revolution of 1917 and come to China. Many were without official papers, and had no where to go. Many lived in poverty, and became addicts or prostitutes.
All this seething underbelly played a part in Pamela's death, but I won't tell you how or why. That's for you to find out when you read this book. I would recommend this for anyone who is a history buff, enjoys true crime, and just wants a good old mystery. It is a bit gory in a few spots--Pamela was viciously murdered. But why? Thanks to Werner, his endless quest to uncover who killed his daughter, and the author, we find out. The story of a young British woman in Peking in 1937, long forgotten, has come back to life.
Rating: 7/10. The author gives great detail about Peking, the people, the political climate, and the police investigation. There is plenty of historical background to help the reader understand the whole picture. Photos of major places in the story are included, as well as photos of Pamela and key players.
Available in paperback, e-book, hardcover, and audio.