Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the title of the book in one reference as “Murder in Peking.” The review also referred to the publisher, Penguin Books, as Penguin Press. This version has been corrected.
A good murder is harder to find than you think. We’re so used to the theatrical crimes served up nightly on TV that we forget most police blotters in real life are records of mindless violence, domestic arguments gone out of control, the desperate overreaching of the not-too-bright. No glamorous blonde, no wicked conspiracy.
So the China business analyst and historian Paul French must have felt the writing gods smiling down on him when he came across the unsolved 1937 case of Pamela Werner, which had both the blonde and the conspiracy. At 20, Werner was more schoolgirl than femme fatale, the privileged daughter of a former British consul and old China hand, but she was brutally murdered and mutilated in a crime that rocked the smug, insular world of expat prewar Peking.
This murder story, French soon discovered, had everything: the hint of official coverup, a crusading detective (the victim’s father), an exotic setting, even a White Russian hermaphrodite. French re-opened the case, hunted down forgotten documents — the writing of this book is also a kind of detective story — and has delivered not only an entertaining read but a plausible account of Werner’s last night. After all these years, case probably solved.
“Midnight in Peking” has all the sturdy virtues of a classic whodunit — the baffling crime, the blind-alley clues, the lucky chance encounter — and to French’s credit, he follows the steady unfolding of the case as it happened, layer by layer.
In this he’s lucky to have had the cinematic pairing of Chinese detective Han and former Scotland Yard detective Dennis, a kind of Anglo-Chinese Watson and Holmes, who methodically introduce us to the first suspects. But it’s after they reach a dead end and Werner’s obsessive father takes over that we come to the seedy heart of the story, found in the brothels and opium dens of the city’s vice-filled hutong alleyways — in a neighborhood actually called the Badlands — right next door to the exclusive European enclave. (The British community, shocked but determined to save face, has all the eccentricity and colonial hypocrisy that have given plum roles to character actors over the years.)
French is especially good at evoking the sights and feel of old Peking — the tea dances in the grand hotels while the Japanese invaders advance, the desperate flophouses of stateless White Russians and escaping Jews — and he’s deft at sketching the corrupt political background that enabled this giddy, surreal scene to flourish. The book is informative, the laying out of evidence well reasoned (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this by revealing who the killer is), and even the minor characters have presence on the page.
There are signs that French, having done all this, wants the book to do more — provide some justice and closure for Werner (well, all right) and show her story to be relevant to today’s China (how, exactly?). The fact is, this is very much a period story, told with flair and a genuine feel for its time. Werner’s world vanished with the Japanese occupation, and her death, however tragic, never sat on the racial fault lines of colonialism that still reverberate. This is a good murder story, well told, with all the additional pleasures that a knowledgeable tour guide to old China can provide. Grateful readers could scarcely ask for more.
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING
How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
By Paul French
Penguin Books. 259 pp. $26