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Posts Tagged ‘teenager’s murder’

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING by Paul French: Book Review

The full title of this book is Midnight in Peking:  How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. That says it all.

A dear friend of mine, Deborah Richardson, sent me this book because she thought it would interest me, and she was absolutely right.  This work of non-fiction is the spellbinding story of a very turbulent time, not only in China but throughout the world as the Second World War was approaching.

In fact, it was approaching China more rapidly than elsewhere.  The Japanese had invaded Manchuria several years earlier, and as this book opens it is 1938 and the Japanese are marching steadily toward Peking. The Chinese, split between communist sympathizers and the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, was proving ineffective at halting the Japanese.  Peking itself, still home to the legations of the British, French, Japanese, and German governments, was powerless.  The city was crowded with its own citizens as well as diplomats from the above-mentioned countries and refugees pouring in from Europe–mainly White Russians and Jewish refugees.

On a January morning, an elderly Chinese man came across the body of a young white female. Even a cursory glance was enough to see that she had been badly beaten, stabbed multiple times, and had had some of her clothes torn off.  The location of the body was in itself particularly malevolent; it was found at the Fox Tower, which was believed to be haunted by evil fox spirits.

The investigation seemed to be in good hands at first. Colonel Han Shih-ching was a senior detective, and this was not the only foreign corpse he had come across.  Although the Fox Tower was in the Chinese section of Peking, since the girl was obviously of European descent Han called the head of the Legation Quarter Administration to view the body and possibly to identify her.

A closer look at the young woman’s body revealed a platinum and diamond wristwatch.  This was not the corpse of some penniless waif or prostitute, which had been the first thought of the police responding to the call. Then an elderly white man pushed his way through the crowd.  He looked at the broken body, exclaimed “Pamela,” and fell to the ground.  It was his daughter, home from school for the Christmas holiday.  The man was Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, a British subject, former diplomat, author, and scholar of Chinese languages and literature.

Shortly afterwards the British diplomatic service loaned Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis to the Peking police as a favor, but he had his orders to limit his investigation to the Legation Quarter.  However, since the victim was a British subject but Pamela’s body was found outside the Quarter, and since the Fox Tower was under Chinese control but the victim was foreign, Han and Dennis were hindered from the start. It was politics as usual.

How the British and Chinese investigators interacted as they tried both to find the murderer and “save face” and “protect their own,” and how the eccentric Edward Werner refused to accept this flawed investigation as final, is a fascinating read. It involves good will, ill will, corruption, government cover-ups, lies, and more lies.  As the French proverb goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Paul French has done a wonderful job portraying the last days of a dissolute, crumbling empire. You can read more about him at this web site.