Book Review: Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Pekingby Paul FrenchPenguin Books, 2012Penguin Books begins a new thing with Paul French's sleek and riveting Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China - they commence a line of Penguin Hardcover Originals, and they could scarcely have chosen a better debut for the series. French, a journalist and prolific expert on all things Chinese, has taken a footnote from nearly a century ago - the unsolved murder of British schoolgirl Pamela Werner in old Peking in January of 1937 - and used it as the focus of a tight little tour de force of fast-paced narrative and dogged research. The book's title is obviously meant to suggest John Berendt's massive 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but readers will find in French's book none of the annoying picaresque pandering that filled Berendt's story; the more accurate comparison is Jonathan Spence's great 1978 The Death of Woman Wang.French wisely opens his book with a sweeping description of the perilous state of affairs in China at the time of his story, with the country on the brink of World War II and Peking itself nearly encircled by invading Japanese forces. This led to a city in turmoil:

Chinese Peking was bursting with peasants who had crowded in from the surrounding provinces, fleeing the Japanese, the warlords, poverty and natural disasters. They wandered aimlessly, wondering what tomorrow would bring. They went to bed early in crammed houses to escape the dark and the biting cold, hoping to make it through another day.

And yet at the heart of that turmoil, the Legation Quarter (with its fortified gates and emplaced guns) functioned as a separate world - one in which its numerous ex-pat inhabitants could manage almost always to fool themselves about the chaos of the outside world:

When the catastrophe did finally hit, China would be thrown into a struggle for its very survival, in what would be the opening act of World War II. For now foreign Peking was in an uneasy lull, on the edge of panic at times, although an alcohol-assisted denial and the strength of the silver dollar made life more bearable for many. An American or a European could still live like a king in this city, with a life of servants, golf, races, champagne-fuelled weekend retreats in the Western Hills. The storm might be coming, but the last foreigners in Peking had battened down the hatches very comfortably.

One of those resident foreigners, young Pamela Werner, was found dead at the foot of Fox Tower by an old man taking his songbird for a walk one morning in early January. The British community is shocked, and an investigation - headed by a Chinese detective named Han and a British detective named Dennis (French portrays both the men and their at times uneasy alliance with deft understatement - there's a murder mystery series of novels just begging to be written around these two, and he wisely doesn't write it) - is undertaken. The horrific nature of the crime becomes apparent at the autopsy:

After removing the skin from Pamela's chest and stomach, the killer had carved open her chest to expose her ribs. He had then broken all twelve of her ribs, six on either side. Each had been broken outwards, and then the killer had removed her heart, her bladder, her kidney and her liver.

The official investigation is soon stalled and then called off for a welter of political reasons, but Pamela's father, former British consul E.T.C. Werner, refuses to let the matter drop. He's the stand-out character in the book, a brusque, feisty old man who becomes obsessed with finding his daughter's killer. When a British ambassador at one point tries to persuade him to halt his own extensive investigation of the crime, he sharply responds, "Shirking or slinking away is not my idea of how to solve the mystery of the brutal murder of a weak child" - and keeps going (casting for the inevitable movie version of this book is an open guess, but surely Christopher Plummer must play Werner).The Chinese proverb shui lo shih chu - as the water recedes, the rock appears - lies at the heart of the masterful job French does in these pages. Slowly and patiently (and always with a fine dramatist's ear for pacing), he unfolds his story and works his material to some interesting conclusions. Midnight in Peking is a veritably pure example of how to write so-called 'popular' history: it pulls no intellectual punches, but it can be recommended to virtually anybody. The only readers who'll be disappointed with it are the poor saps whose books have to measure up to its example in this Hardcover Originals line.