We’re participating in the large Showers of Books Giveaway Hop. Thanks to the publisher’s generosity, the finished hardcopy book of Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French is our giveaway!
Paul French, a historian living in Shanghai, did massive research into the unsolved 1937 murder of Pamela Werner and believes he has uncovered the truth at long last. This is a true crime story set in the last days of old Peking, just before the Japanese invasion.
Pamela Werner was the adopted daughter of E.T.C. Werner, an ex-British consul who made his home just outside of the foreign legation. He had long been an advocate for the Chinese and felt it was more conducive to relations if he lived among them. He made his home in a traditional courtyard compound, with Chinese servants to care for him and his family. Pamela didn’t really know her adoptive mother since she died when Pamela was still quite young. Afterward Pamela had quite a lot of freedom and independence for a girl her age, and for her time and place. To many she was a study in contradictions.
There were several issues with Pamela’s behavior at the different schools she attended, leading her to be sent to boarding school in Tientsin where she boarded with the headmaster’s family. In late 1936, she came home for the mid-winter holidays. Her father planned to move them both to England at the end of January because he felt she could get a more appropriate education there. She had a lot of friends in the different foreign legations and attended many parties over the holidays.
“The servants’ talk was that Pamela’s father was a strange man, though a respected one. He paid fair; he didn’t mistreat his staff. He could speak more Chinese dialects than they could; he knew their culture, was a scholar. But with no mother’s influence, the daughter had been wild, and there was trouble at school. The old man couldn’t control her; he went off on long expeditions and left her alone with the servants. It wasn’t a harmonious household.”
At the end of the street where the Werners lived was a large ditch containing water and on the other side of it was the Fox Tower, one of Peking’s many towers and gates that were part of the Tartar wall around the city. Fox spirits had been long suspected by the Chinese of stealing men’s souls, so most people gave the Fox Tower a wide berth especially at night.
Very early on the January morning after the Russian Orthodox Christmas in 1937, a discovery was made at the foot of the Fox Tower. It was the mutilated body of a young girl, Pamela Werner. She had been out skating with friends the afternoon before but no one had seen her since. Her father was worried and had already notified police during the night when she hadn’t returned, but they were loath to do anything until more time had passed.
“On the final afternoon of her life, after her father had gone out for his walk and she had finished writing her letters, Pamela donned her heavy overcoat and woolen mittens and pushed her straw-fair hair up into a beret. She took her ice skates and her bicycle and told Ho Ying, the household’s cook, who’d known her since she was a baby, that she’d be back by seven thirty. She said she would like meatballs and rice for dinner,…”
Detective Han from the Peking police department was put in charge of the case. He was to work with the Chinese to solve the murder. Han knew that if the case was not solved within a few weeks, he would be pulled off of it to work on other cases. DCI Dennis was brought to Peking from Tientsin and put in charge of working on the case within the foreign legation. This was the common way of handling crimes that involved foreign citizens. Lending additional pressure was the horrific nature of the crime, the fact that Pamela was the daughter of such a high-ranking foreigner, and the knowledge that an invasion of Peking by the Japanese was imminent.
Both Detective Han and particularly DCI Dennis found themselves hindered at almost every turn by a combination of politics and bureaucracy. Foreign legation officials insisted the murder had to have been committed by a Chinese. Both Han and Dennis strongly suspected it had been committed by a foreigner but from what nation? Peking was home to many Russian refugees fleeing the revolution as well as foreigners from a wealth of countries.
Who killed Pamela? Was it someone she knew? Was it a complete stranger? Why was her body so horribly mutilated? Did Peking have a madman on its hands and would she be the first of many?
Before the crime could be solved, DCI Dennis was recalled to Tientsin and Han was pulled off of the case. Although both had suspicions about what happened, no proof had been found. Shortly afterward the Japanese invaded Peking, killing hundreds of thousands. Pamela’s murder case was left unsolved in the chaos that followed.
Paul French has done amazing research into this case, tracking down files in China and England to try to find a resolution to this case. He presents a quite convincing case for who murdered her, and why. If what he believes is true then her murder was even worse than initially imagined.
I was spellbound, following the clues as they were presented. I got as frustrated as Han and Dennis must have felt with the roadblocks thrown in their way. I don’t know how E.C.I. Werner survived knowing what a horrible ending his child met, or the hopeless apparent bungling of her murder investigation. If you like true crime stories, detective stories, and/or historical non-fiction, then you are going to get really caught up in Midnight in Peking. It’s a fascinating read! And, according to a recent Forbes article, it will be made into a British TV drama! I sure hope we’ll get to see it in the U.S.!
Q&A with Paul French:
Q: When and where did you first discover Pamela, and what was it that piqued your interest in her story?
A: I was reading a rather dry and academic biography of the famous American journalist Edgar Snow who became well known in China in the 1930’s. A small footnote stated that his neighbor had been Pamela Werner, a young English woman murdered in 1937, and whose killing was never solved…
Q: Why is the story of Pamela’s murder significant?
A: Pamela’s was one murder that seemed to presage even greater horrors for everyone in China. In 1937 her killing, when everyone knew things were about to get a lot worse for them all, really coalesced the terror that Chinese civilization was about to be overrun by the forces of barbarism. Stalin (Who would have known!!) said, “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”…I felt that even back then, on the eve of World War II, and now, Pamela felt to people like that one tragedy.
Q: What is the most surprising thing about Pamela’s story?
A: For me the most surprising aspect of the story was how my attitude to some of the characters changed over time. This was particularly true of Pamela’s father…He was a man many admired but few appear to have liked. I felt that way about him too at first. But when I began to read his own notes…I suddenly heard the voice of a loving father in intense personal pain over the sudden and horrible loss of his daughter…There’s also no point in denying that over the years it took to research this book I developed a rather deep obsession with Pamela herself. I wanted desperately to know her better, to sense what the last days of her life were like, to understand her…
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
A: For me crime stories – real or fictional – are ultimately all about character, period, and location…In January 1937 a horrific crime was committed and nobody was ever brought to justice for it. That throws our sense of right and wrong off balance, forces our world out of harmony. I think it’s important, even 75 years later, that we remember. In the remembering, in the not forgetting someone whose life was stolen, is a form of justice, a rebalancing, a return to some sort of harmony. In a sense, through my book, perhaps Pamela lives again in our collective memory. I hope so, she deserves to.
Upcoming Paul French Touring Dates:
4/24 Atlanta, GA Georgia Center for the Book @7pm
4/26 Arlington, VA One More Page Books @7pm
4/28 Washington, DC Politics & Prose @ 1pm
5/1 St. Louis, MO Left Bank Books @7pm
5/2 Houston, TX Murder by the Book @6:30pm
5/3 Phoenix, AZ Poisoned Pen @7pm
5/4 Denver, CO Tattered Cover (Colfax) @7pm
5/7 Seattle, WA Seattle Asian Art Museum @7pm
5/8 Portland, OR Powell’s (Cedar Hill) @7pm
5/9 Berkley, CA Books, Inc. @7pm
5/10 Corte Madera, CA Book Passage @7pm
Can’t wait to read it?
Midnight in Peking will be published in the U.S., on April 24, 2012; however, it should be available for pre-order from your favorite bookseller below. Please note: I believe it may already be available in Europe.
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