After reading a footnote briefly referencing the murder of a young English expat in Peking (now Beijing), author Paul French woke up the next morning with the strong conviction that there was a deep and strange story behind it that needed telling.
Midnight in Peking is the ominously suspenseful historical true crime account that grew from French’s research into that footnote. It tells the story of English teenager Pamela Werner, who lived in Peking with her father, Edward Werner, a British diplomat and Sinologist who specialized in the study of Chinese myths and magic. Pamela was brutally murdered under strange circumstances, not least of which being that she was an unlikely victim, who, despite some recent issues including a predatory teacher, had no obvious activities or connections placing her in danger.
In January 1937, the nineteen-year-old’s disembowelled body was found under the Tartar Wall by the Fox Tower in a section of Peking dubbed “the Badlands” for its unsavory reputation. The Fox Tower carried a supernatural link, said to be haunted by mythical fox spirits, giving the mystery an eerie, otherworldly aura.
The atmosphere of the city at the time of Pamela’s death creates another menacing layer in this story. This was the eve of the invasion of China by the Japanese, triggering the Sino-Japanese War, and the city was becoming increasingly chaotic and strained as conflict loomed. An undercurrent of tension pervades French’s scene-setting and historical context, vividly depicting what the mood was like leading up to the Japanese invasion and occupation. This history ends up being just as engrossing a story as that of the crime and mystery.
French deftly establishes what these fraught days must have felt like – a country on the brink with war in the air, agitated even further by a vicious killing within the foreign community, drawing some of this group’s shadowy, debauched elements into the light. The attention and resources focused on the growing conflict with Japan also meant that less were allocated to Pamela’s murder, which officially went unsolved.
Her death haunted her single father, who spent years researching and compiling evidence to deduce what happened and create some narrative with who was responsible and why. He hired detectives himself, instigating a second investigation after the official one by Chinese police failed to catch the killer. French reconstructs the story largely using Werner’s own research, further boosted by newspaper stories, police reports, and archival materials. Werner was a troubling and alienating figure – deeply lonely, reclusive, even antagonistic to diplomatic colleagues involved in the investigation, but clearly heartbroken by and obsessed with his daughter’s murder.
The book is beautifully written, absorbing and atmospheric, and the mystery at its heart is truly perplexing: why would someone want to kill a low-risk teenage schoolgirl, especially one who was soon to leave China anyway? Motive is murky given her victim profile, and that makes this mystery all the more confounding, and unnerving as French exposes the realities of the sordid side of the foreign community.
As much as I loved reading this, and as caught up as it’s easy to become in the storytelling, I felt a little unsatisfied with the conclusions it draws, building mainly on Werner’s private investigation materials. These conclusions of his were found among archives in the British Library and further investigated by the author, as he explains in a brief afterword, and he also succinctly says that he “accepts them.” They form the basis of his theory of what happened, and shapes the narrative he constructs of Pamela’s final evening. French also researched in China and the UK and had access to additional documents and materials related to the case, so we understand that he did due diligence.
But the story worked out gives me pause. It’s complicated, there are a lot of people and a lot of depravity involved, and an element of corruption that’s near-conspiracy theory level. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, corruption is real and often rampant and conspiracies don’t exist in vacuums, but I felt that it asked us to suspend a lot of disbelief. And I criticize unhelpfully, without having any better suggestion to contribute. I have no idea what could’ve happened, or what specific pieces of the story don’t fit beyond a general outlandishness. It’s just the whole package of it that seems a bit eyebrow-raising. Occam’s razor this theory is not.
And yet, as Sherlock Holmes told us, with the impossible eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. There’s a wealth of research that went into this and it’s what her father ultimately concluded, having the benefit of being in the midst of it at the time. It seems like the truth is in there somewhere. Perhaps it just felt a bit disappointing to have such a detail-rich, tense page-turner end with a resolution that still left me with questions, but that’s how true stories often go.
Still a remarkable work, well worth the read, and an extraordinary piece of history providing a glimpse of China at a pivotal moment in time. 4/5
Midnight in Peking:
How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
by Paul French
published May 2012 by Penguin