I noted when I first read this, and I still find it true: This is the best true crime book I have read since The Devil in the White City. Paul French painstakingly recreates not only the last days of Pamela Werner, but a crumbling China. Like the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Peking was a city made up of cities. The Legation Quarter was an entire neighborhood composed of various nationalities’ embassies, clubs, hotels and theatres. Facades that reminded their frequenters of home, an island in the middle of ancient China.
With Orientalism at its height, in 1936 and 37, a 19 year old Englishwoman should have been having the time of her life. Daughter to a British consul, she could enjoy the exoticism of living in China by living just on the edge of it. But one morning in January 1937, her body is discovered at the base of Fox Tower.
Her violent death shocks Chinese and European Peking alike. Locals fear they will be blamed, while European authorities are loathe to think a fellow foreigner could have done such a thing.
Drawing on Pamela’s father’s extensive notes, as well as newspaper accounts and the files of the two detectives assigned to the case, French breathes new life into a 75 year old murder mystery. And though his research is diligent, there is nothing dry about this book.
Between DCI Dennis and Colonel Han the reader is led through a rabbit warren of opium dens and ancient hutongs, meeting salacious ne’er-do-wells, White Russians, questionable witnesses. The characters — in this case real people — are flawed, human and sympathetic. In fact, it’s hard to even find a true hero, though a number of heroics are performed. Still, these people are so well-drawn by French that you can’t look away.
And the city of Peking is itself a character.
Dennis and Thomas found a table out of sight to all but the white-suited, silent-slippered Chinese waiters who brought whisky sodas and replaced the big brass ashtrays on stands next to each man. The spittoons on the floor were unused by foreigners but were standard Peking fixtures. The ladies and bright young things among the palm fronds were drinking the Wagon Lits’ signature champagne cocktails, or gin rickeys and sherry flips; there was a background noise of ice on metal from the cocktail shakers behind the bar. A string quartet played light, faintly recognizable mood music — the greatest hits of 1935 had eventually made it to Peking. The city tried but it couldn’t help being behind London, Paris and New York.
French has also put together a fantastic website, chronicling all evidence as well as providing photographs and maps of the sites in the book. However, if you haven’t finished the book, be wary as there are spoilers.
Midnight in Peking has brought Pamela Werner out of oblivion and given her new life. And we can walk the streets of old Peking with her, until that cold night in 1937.
ENTER TO WIN A COPY HERE.
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); 1 edition (April 24, 2012)
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches