Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"Midnight in Peking" review

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put this book in my "Global detective fiction" shelf, though let me say right away that it is not fiction. I enjoyed every minute of this book and it ended all too soon.

The time is 1937 and the place is the area in and around the Foreign Legation quarters in old Peking. Politics all over the world are in turmoil with events leading to WWII taking place in Europe, and in China the brutal Japanese are invading and the already feeble nationalist government is on the ropes.

A nearly-19 year old Englishwoman, Pamela Werner, is killed, her body mutilated and dumped at the base of the Fox Tower just outside the Legation. The details of the joint Chinese and English investigation, its constraints and its flaws is fascinating in and of itself. When the investigation is unable to point to a culprit, Pamela's father spends the rest of his years in Peking doing the investigation that the police should have done. But his findings fall on deaf ears. Are the British afraid to lose face? Is that why the British powers ignore the findings and call their representative on the team home to Tientsin? Was the original investigation, which seemed fairly competent for the time and place, in fact, undercut by restraints and subterfuge on the Chinese side? Peking soon falls to the it just that everyone has more important things to think about than a dead girl who was a bit of a handful while she was alive and perhaps no better than she should have been?

Historian Paul French has reconstructed the entire case, from the events leading up to the fatal night, to the actions and investigations of all of the parties involved. He quite literally found by fortunate accident a folder of records stored in the British archives that traced the case, including ETC Werner's many letters filled with his additional investigations and pleading for more action on the case. From these records and his other investigations, French puts together a quite believable chain of events and points the finger at one man in particular. This case was unsolved from 1937 to 2011 and quite forgotten, but it is now resolved and there can be little doubt that French's version is valid.

Ok, THAT is the story. It's well-told and reads like an exciting murder mystery. For me, the bonus was the very detailed portrait of Peking during this period and the foreign presence in China's coastal cities such as Shanghai and Tientsin. I can't say enough about the lively realistic (and unsavory) picture that emerges of the Legation area of Peking. I spent half the time I was supposedly reading the book looking for maps online so I could follow the action. It turns out that many of the places and streets that feature prominently in the story are still there (remarkable, considering the construction in Beijing over the last few decades).

If you are interested in that aspect of the story, start with the Wikipedia entry on "Beijing Legation Quarter" and follow links to maps. There is also this Paul French link:

Breaking news, Midnight in Peking Walking Tour!

When can I go???!

I could go on and on because I found this book utterly fascinating. The murder mystery was only one part of its appeal, for this reader.

View all my reviews

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