This novelistic thriller provides gripping insights into the unsolved 1937 murder of an English woman in China.
An old photo found in the British Library archives convinced historian Paul French to write "Midnight in Peking" (Penguin, 260 pages, $26), a nonfiction account that brings to life not just the secrets of the unsolved 1937 murder of a young English woman in China, but the secrets of a country on the verge of revolution.
French, a British columnist and analyst based in Shanghai, has written several books about China before 1949, the year it became the People's Republic of China and its new Communist leaders began to rid Peking -- today's Beijing -- of its brothels and opium dens. In the city's red-light district -- the Badlands -- a dozen years earlier the suspects and witnesses in Pamela Werner's murder last saw the 20-year-old alive. In riveting prose, French pieces together events that have never before been fully, publicly explored.
His latest book begins with the discovery of Pamela's body on a frozen January morning, "lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost." It's discovered by an old man who, while taking his "prized songbird" for a walk near the base of an ancient turret, sees a woman, a "foreigner ... [a] laowai" ripped and bloodied, with stab wounds on her pale legs and face. On her wrist is "an expensive watch that had stopped just after midnight."
French uses small -- and what to others might seem meaningless -- details like the watch (or, later, an ashtray stolen from a steamship), to paint vivid pictures of the people and happenings involved. Similar to Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," it's a compelling story brought to life by meticulous research.
The dismay and disgust that French feels toward the British and Chinese officials who worked harder to discredit clues found by Pamela's father than to solve the crime is palpable, as is the suspense that leads up to the reveal of who most likely was responsible -- facts "pigeon-holed and forgotten" by both politics and World War II.
French is a skillful storyteller. He carefully unfolds a complex and potentially confusing story, clue by gripping clue. And, with the atmosphere he creates, he takes the reader into the streets, whorehouses, skating rink and school that Pamela and those involved in her life and death visited, too.
Appropriately subtitled "How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China," "Midnight in Peking" is a well-crafted thriller about the darker side of humanity. Like the photo of Pamela that haunted French, how this story plays out will haunt readers, too.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.