Midnight in Peking by Paul French is the story of a murder filled with money, beauty, gore, deception, and cover up—everything a great mystery needs to capture readers. What makes Midnight in Peking even more gripping is that it is the true story of the 1937 murder of Pamela Werner, a British girl living in Peking, China.
In the winter of 1937 dead bodies were not an uncommon sight, poverty, suicide, and political killings were the most common causes, but this murder was different. Pamela, the daughter of former British consul, E.T.C. Werner, was visiting her home of Peking on Christmas break when her body was found so severely beaten and disfigured authorities noted it as one of the worst cases of mutilation they had ever seen.
Though this is a non-fiction book, it reads like a novel. French uses a story telling style to establish the setting and the characters that we will be following throughout the investigation. More importantly, though the book is loaded with facts, he shows us those facts instead of merely telling them to us. As the detectives are learning about Pamela’s life, we the reader are learning about the society, culture, and atmosphere that was overtaking Peking in 1937.
We learn that most foreigners living in Peking were wealthy and lived in the Legation Quarter, a section of the city that was a mini European city with armed guards posted at each of its gated entrances, while most of the Chinese citizens were poor and fearful of the impending war. We are along for the ride as the detectives are interviewing witnesses and following leads. The writing style will suck you in and the story gives validity to the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction.
In accordance with custom, in the event of the murder of a British citizen on Chinese soil, the Chinese Detectives Bureau would handle the investigation and invite a British envoy to monitor, keeping the British government apprised of the progress. Under this agreement Chinese Colonel Han and Scotland Yard trained Detective Chief inspector Richard Dennis begin to search for the murderer of Pamela Werner as Peking descended into fear with the threat of a Japanese invasion.
We follow Han and Dennis was they question Pamela’s friends, suitors, and father in order to recreate the events that led up to her death. We are introduced to Pamela, a young woman who was raised in the Tartar City, an area just outside of the protected Legation Quarter, because her father wanted her to have a more authentic way of life in China.
We explore Pamela’s life at school in Tientsin and her home life with Werner. We are enthralled as we investigate the cabarets and brothels located in the Badlands where respected foreigners and the underbelly of Peking rubbed elbows, and everything was available for a price. French leads readers down the same dead ends and false paths as Han and Dennis followed trying to find evidence and witnesses. We muddle through information, trying to make the connection to Pamela and her ill fate, and like the detectives, we become frustrated with the bureaucratic limitations that the governments are placing on the investigation, and the lack of strong suspects.
After 13 months of investigation and a strong gut feeling of who was responsible, Dennis returned to his position as chief of police in Tientsin and 6 months later Pamela’s death is declared, “murder by a person or persons unknown.” We are as dejected as Dennis, but have not been able to make sense of all the evidence. By this point, the Chinese newspapers had already lost interest in the story and the people were preoccupied with the Japanese presence. Pamela’s murder was forgotten by all, except her father.
When Pamela’s father begins his private investigation is the point where I couldn’t put the book down (Literally, I read it straight through to the end). E.T.C. Werner spends his savings and dedicates the rest of his life to solving his daughter’s murder. Using methods that the detectives shunned he begins to uncover witnesses and make connections that the police never made (or never revealed). Piece by piece E.T.C. discovers how horrific his daughter’s death truly was.
As we follow E.T.C.’s investigation we are presented with many of the same witnesses and events, yet in a different light. It is in this section where we see what French has been doing throughout the book, he has been presenting us with the evidence in order of discovery instead of directly leading us to the verdict.
I will not reveal anything that E.T.C. discovered, because I want you to be able to enjoy this book as much as I did, and his revelations are a huge part of what makes the book so engrossing.
What I will say is, that like Dennis, the British blocked and dismissed all of the evidence that E.T.C. uncovered and this case remains officially unsolved. During the research and writing of this book, French found an entire box of correspondence between E.T.C. and British Embassy that was filed and forgotten about. It is from those notes that French recreates E.T.C.’s investigation and convinces the reader that he had solved his daughter’s murder and identified her killer.
If you like murder mysteries, you will love this book. If you like true crime stories, you will love this book. If you love anthropological commentary, you will love this book. The murder hooks you, the investigations and cover ups string you along, and the revelations about the police, culture, and diplomatic relations of that time educate you.
To complement the release of this book, Penguin and Paul French have made many materials available online at us.midnightinpeking.com. This site contains, information, maps of old Peking, photos of the key players of the investigation, original news clippings and post cards that add another layer to the historical context in which we have just been immersed.