A Tale of Midnight Murder in Old Peking

In his new book Midnight in PekingBritish author Paul French re-opens a murder case long lost to the tumultuous tides of Chinese history. On the book’s website, French sets the historical context and introduces the case:

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The book probes the mysterious 1937 murder of Pamela Werner, daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a British representative to the Qing court turned Peking ex-pat and sinologist. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad talked with French about the victim’s father and his contribution to the new book:

French says Werner used his own money to hire detectives and buy evidence off of rickshaw drivers, bartenders, prostitutes — anyone who might have caught a glimpse of his daughter’s last hours. Werner compiled a report to send to the British government, so it could follow up on the death of a British subject in a foreign land.

He sent off the document — 150 typed pages with hand-written notes in the margins — just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

“But it doesn’t get to London until 1943, because of the disruption of the sea lanes and World War II,” French said. “When it gets to London in 1943, they look at it, they sign it as accepted, and they put it in the files — and they forget about it.”

There it sat until Paul French discovered it, during the five years he spent poring over British archives and retracing Pamela’s steps in researching his book.[...]

A review in The Telegraph praises the book, and describes the neighborhood where Pamela’s body was found and much of the book is set – a squalid foreign underworld nestled in the hutongs of old Peking:

The mystery darkens in this network of alleys that surrounded the Quarter with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. Here, we find the scintillating low-life of White Russian pimps and prostitutes scratching an illegal living alongside Chinese and European desperadoes, Korean mercenaries and redundant warlords. The colonial classes satisfied their droit seigneurial appetites in the squalor of these alleyways. Although French does not waste words on building atmosphere, it seems the Legation residents were so giddy with wealth and privilege, they could not see Peking’s streets were seething with starving peasants fleeing the Japanese.

The book has also drawn rave reviews from Macleans, the Wall Street Journal, and the China Law and Policy blog. Also see Timeout Hong Kong’s report on an upcoming TV miniseries based on the book.

June 6, 2012 4:38 PM
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Categories: CDT Bookshelf