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Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French


Pages: 259
Original date of publication: 2013
My copy: 2013 (Penguin)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013

In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.

At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but somehow everyone was thrown together in a tightly knit group, unified by a fear of what was to come.

The story of the murder itself is incredibly absorbing; what exactly happened on the night of January 8, 1937 that led to a young woman’s murder and mutilation? Pamela Werner comes across an independent, intelligent young woman, and her father was relentless in tracking down her murderer—even though the British government tried to cover it up and the case was never officially solved. Too, Peking had much greater things to think about at the time than the murder of a young British girl. French solves the crime, but I think he uses his imagination a fair amount in describing how the murder played out. French’s technical writing isn’t particularly good, but he tells an interesting story. I especially loved the superstition surrounding the Fox Tower—fox spirits that represent a woman’s ability to seduce and betray. It’s an interesting parallel, but it wasn’t worked into the story very well.

Comments

Karen K. said…
I just checked this out from the library!! However, I don't know if I'll get to it before it's due and I think there are other holds.

I also recently read "People Who Eat Darkness" which is about a true crime in Tokyo, though it's set in the early 2000s. Horrifying yet fascinating.
Your review is one of the few that notice how much material in the book is unsubstantiated, which is something that bothered me, so i got the original archives (werner's letters) which you can see here: www.pamelawernermurderpeking.com.
Take a look at "Sources", and "The case against Prentice", and "Official investigation" and compare it to French's "research".
I was pretty horrified.
Hope you don't mind me sharing?!
Feel free to tweet it, link to the site, if it is of interest to your readers!
Oscar Wildde said…
I found a good list of archives links at essaykings.me. You can have a look. It's a bit old (of 2010), but I know that the websites are cool.
Cheers

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February
1. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
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5. Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious
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7. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
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March
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