China: ‘Midnight in Peking’ Proves That Fact Really IS Stranger Than Fiction

Book Review

As Japanese troops close in on the ancient imperial city of Peking, the daughter of a retired diplomat is brutally murdered. The case is left unsolved until a footnote in a book attracts the attention of an investigative reporter. 

Written by Paul French, “Midnight in Peking” is the painstaking reconstruction of the unsolved murder of the 19-year-old daughter of a retired British diplomat and scholar in the late 1930s.

“Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China” is the gripping tale of an unsolved murder.

Pamela Werner, the 19-year-old daughter of a retired British diplomat and scholar, goes ice skating on a bone-chilling January evening in Beijing and never returns home.

Early the next day, her mutilated body is discovered by a couple of rickshaw-pullers at a site that is thought to be haunted. Her face has been slashed, the blood has been drained from her body, and her heart is missing.

Investigations ensue, and they run into every roadblock. The truth never comes out. Does someone have something to hide?

The British authorities seem more concerned with keeping up appearances than getting at the truth.

The rumour mill, meanwhile, goes into overdrive. Was she killed by superstitious Chinese ritual killers? Members of a Japanese secret society? American nudists involved in an organized sex ring?

Note: Beijing and Peking are the same place. While the city’s name has not changed in Chinese, the English translation of the name changed during the switch from the Wade Giles to the pinyin system of romanization in the 1960s.

Reconstruction

According to Paul French, the book’s author, Midnight in Peking is a “reconstruction” of the investigations that took place based on a variety of sources: medical records, newspaper articles, police reports, letters from Scotland Yard, the list goes on.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is how Paul stumbled across the case in the first place. It had, after all, been all but forgotten.

American journalist Edgar Snow was a Communist sympathizer who spent several months living with the Chinese Red Army in 1936. He carried out extensive interviews with Chairman Mao and other top Communist officials.

The result of this experience was Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism, in which Edgar details the Long March, the lives of Chinese Communist leaders, and daily life in the Communist controlled parts of China.

Old Peking

Entrance to a courtyard home on an alleyway in Old Peking. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When reading Red Star over China, Paul notices a footnote that makes reference to the Pamela Werner case. While the grisly case has sent chills down the backs of Beijing’s expatriate community, Edgar’s wife Helen, it seems, has particular cause for concern.

The home that she shares with Edgar is, after all, near the site of the gruesome event, and she also frequently cycles along the same route that Pamela traversed on the fateful night.

Had Helen Snow been the intended victim?

If the book  reads like a well-crafted whodunit, Paul says he didn’t take literary license in his reconstruction of the case. The facts themselves are strange enough and needed no embellishment. But he does relate them with style and finesse.

Flotsam and Jetsam

The bonus in reading this book is that it takes us on a journey into a China that no longer exists. We are introduced not only to the diplomats, academics, business tycoons, and missionaries living their privileged lives in the Legation Quarter.

We also encounter the assorted flotsam and jetsam that have washed up on the shores of The Badlands, a notorious wasteland full of tea houses, opium dens, and houses of ill repute.

Since reading Midnight in Peking, I have discovered that Paul has written a follow-up book entitled The Badlands: More Stories from Midnight in Peking.

Apparently I’m not the only reader fascinated by the other side of the expatriate experience in China. This is definitely a book I plan on reading.

Click here to buy “Midnight in Peking”.

 

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10 Replies to “China: ‘Midnight in Peking’ Proves That Fact Really IS Stranger Than Fiction”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book too. China books are always an interesting read but I found this one particularly gripping. Paced almost like a thriller it also takes you back to Peiking at a very interesting point in time . Like a history lesson with a spoon of sugar 🙂 I’ll definitely be reading Badlands now I know it exists.

  2. Glad you liked it as much at I did, Sarah! I also enjoy reading books about China, especially about foreigners that lived there. But I think this one was especially well written. And if I hadn’t written this review (more than a year after I read the book), I wouldn’t have known there was a followup! I believe The Badlands is available in Kindle, but not print. OMG!!! I don’t have Kindle!!!

  3. I can’t believe you don’t have a kindle Michael! It’s my one essential travel item…when I travel I always have my library with me (and a paperback for take off and landing) It’s also great for my eyes and a convenient reading light.

  4. I have a kindle voyage which is around US200 but to be honest I actually prefer the kindle paperwhite at USD120 – you have a lot of choice of cover (which open like a book) I have a special ergonomic thing for my voyage and I think it’s causing me RSS! Definitely get a paperwhite – as soon as I hear about a book I want I can suck it immediately down to the kindle. Honestly, I wouldn’t leave home without it.

  5. Emma Chisett: fascinating and well researched website. I was googling info re Peking and this site popped up. I am keenly interested in old China (history) and recently read Midnight in Peking upon a friend’s recommendation. Having the book on Kindle makes it easy to compare notes. Still have much more to explore but from what I have read so far certainly suggests there are serious flaws in French’s account of the murder. Thank you for the link, and Michael for posting the review.

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