Sunday, February 24, 2013
Midnight In Peking by Paul French
Published April 2012 by Penguin Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for this review
Chronicling an incredible unsolved murder, Midnight in Peking captures the aftermath of the brutal killing of a British schoolgirl in January 1937. The mutilated body of Pamela Werner was found at the base of the Fox Tower, which, according to local superstition, is home to the maliciously seductive fox spirits. As British detective Dennis and Chinese detective Han investigate, the mystery only deepens and, in a city on the verge of invasion, rumor and superstition run rampant. Based on seven years of research by historian and China expert Paul French, this true-crime thriller presents readers with a rare and unique portrait of the last days of colonial Peking.
So much to learn in the book about a part of world history I knew absolutely nothing about beyond knowing that Japan had invaded China just prior to World War II. This book is as much about a time and place as it is about the murder of Pamela Werner. French does an admirable job of explaining how China's political turmoil set it up for not only the invasion by the Japanese but also the rise of communism. Through all of this, much of the international community, which almost exclusively lived in the walled Legation Quarter, went about life as if nothing had changed.
Pamela Werner's murder was never officially solved for a number of reasons: corruption, corruption and sloppy police work being among them. The principal reason seems to have been the refusal of the British diplomatic corp and British government to do anything that might put Britain in a bad light or ruffle the feathers of the Chinese government. To say that the people responsible for Pamela's death were beasts is not an understatement (it truly is one of the most awful crimes I have ever heard about), but the British come off looking almost as evil.
I did find myself scrambling to try to keep track of all of the historical background and there are a lot of names to keep track of as well. I can't imagine trying to listen to this book on audio. The book, although not long, did lag a bit for me in the middle but picked up steam again toward the end. French did a great job of bringing closure to the key players lives without dragging things out too long. He has also included a number of photos in the book which I appreciate when reading non-fiction. The publisher calls this book "riveting." I'm not sure I would agree, but it is definitely a solid read about an horrific crime and a unique time and place.