MIDNIGHT IN PEKING - Paul French
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.
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.
In the exclusive Legation Quarter, the foreigners are jumpy. Japanese troops are poised to attack, and word has it the Chinese government is about to cut a deal with Tokyo, leaving Peking to its fate. Fear reigns inside the ancient city walls, on one of which, not far from the nefarious Badlands, is a massive watchtower. Locals believe it to be haunted by fox spirits that prey upon innocent mortals.
Then one bitterly cold night, the body of an innocent mortal is dumped there. It belongs to the daughter of a former British consul, and when the details of her death become known, people find it hard to credit that any human could treat another in such a fashion.