January 1937: Peking is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium dens, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition - and the clock is ticking down on all of it.
At the end of MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, French writes "I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography of the American journalist Edgar Snow, whose best selling Red Star Over China introduced the world to Mao Tse-tung in the late 1930s. 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....". I'm guessing it's not everyone who would turn such a footnote into an indepth investigation and analysis of a case, although this is a particularly fascinating case.
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING is a combination of what happened, analysis of the police investigation, and guide to 1937 Peking. The book takes the reader into the intricacies of the foreign Legation Quarter, and the lives that the areas inhabitants lived, surrounded by the poorer areas of Peking, on the verge of the Japanese invasion of China.
Whilst the investigation into the death of Werner was never officially resolved, her case garnered a very high profile - her father was a long-time resident and former British Consul in China, an interesting, complex man. Local police were assigned to the case, as well as a representative of the British Law Enforcement authorities, although everything was complicated by the us and them nature of the society within and external to the special Legation Quarter - the walled city if you like - where foreign nationals lived a privileged, materially spoilt, but rather confined lifestyle.
Long past the official investigation being abandoned, Pamela's father, E.T.C. Werner, continued his own efforts to bring her killer to justice, and it is partially his writings on the subject that the author uses in discussing the various aspects of the case, as well as the likely killer and their motivations. Based on those writings, correspondence, police reports and newspaper articles, this book carefully pieces together the life and death of one woman, and the society and circumstances in which it occurred.
This doesn't mean that the book reads like an historical overhaul of the facts, the story is beautifully put together, bringing not just Peking from that period to life, but many of the people who populated the place and time. MIDNIGHT IN PEKING is really a very fascinating book - whilst it's definitely a book about a crime that happened, it's also a glimpse into a period of history and a place that's so very different from the way it is now. It's also a story about a series of people who tried to do the right thing, and a few that obviously weren't quite as genuine as they may have seemed.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE - Qui Xiaolong
Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young "national model worker," revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon's life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth.
To my mind, the very best crime fiction in the world provides a window into the world in which it is set. Be that the psyche of the people, the machinations of the society, how a community is structured and operates, the laws and mores, even the way in which authorities deal with the disorder, how they implement authority. DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is set in Shanghai in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, an ancient city with a population tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Poet Chen Cao is an unlikely policeman, forced into the job by the party system, he's caught between a love of poetry and his own innate sense of responsibility. A loner, a romantic soul, he heads a special unit which is given the task of investigating the brutal murder of Guam Hongying. A National Model Worker, the death of Hongying is viewed as much a political situation as it is a crime.
DEATH OF A RED HEROINE is a very intricate book, exploring many aspects of the society in which the action takes place. Firstly the character of Inspector Chen Cao, a maverick (as much as you can be under totalitarian control), he's a poet, a loner, a romantic soul forced into the life of a policeman. Enjoying the very small privileges that come with rank, he's also uncomfortable with their existence. He's more fortunate in his friendships - both with long-term friends and with his colleagues.
The second aspect of the book that is carefully explored is the victim herself. Her status as a National Model Worker means that her death hits the desks, and the minds of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Her treatment, in death, as it was in life, is slightly different. The way that her status, and her life was regarded is a particularly interesting aspect of this book, as it leads to the final component of the book worth mentioning - Chinese Society in its own right. Possibly the strongest aspect of the book, because the culture and political system of the society imposes itself over every aspect of it's people's lives. From the way that the investigation is regarded, to the way that Hongying and Chen Coa lead their lives, every move everybody makes is somehow choreographed by the ever present "Party" and its cadres.
The parts of the book that don't work quite as well are the plot, and some of the messages that the author is attempting to impart. Second part first - there is some rather heavy-handed repetition of the ills of Communist China. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the messages being delivered, constant repetition doesn't help. The first part - the plot - well got more than a bit hazy at times. Sometimes this was because we'd wandered so far from the central point of the book memory faded, at other points it was simply because plot points sort of got "dumped" into the narrative. Either way, it's not the most complex or unexpected resolution to the death of an attractive young woman.
It also isn't on the fast, tense, light read side of the scale. This is a book which will require a bit of concentration, some acceptance that as with many debuts, there's a bit of work going on to establish a character and his place in the world. But as a lead into a new series, this book has ticked yes to a lot of questions. This is undoubtedly a series that I want to catch up with. In a hurry.