To take the approach of a pitch for a Hollywood movie: Midnight in Peking is The Black Dahlia meets Inspector Morse, with a little Empire of the Sun thrown in. And it’s all real.

But Paul French’s true-crime story is more than just a compelling cold case from late 1930s Beijing (then called Peking by Westerners). It’s a tale of genuine injustice: A killer pretty much in plain sight was never charged because of prejudice, corruption and incompetence. Or so French, a Shanghai-based historian and China expert, believes.

French revives the story of the 1937 murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of a retired British consul, E.T.C. Werner, an elderly China scholar with a checkered record and a temper. Pamela, an independent only child, had a troubled history herself and more than one gentleman caller. One chilly winter morning, her horrifically mutilated body was found near an eerie ancient watchtower not far from her home.

Suspects abounded in a city in its last days before capture by Japanese invaders. Was the killer her father? Her White Russian refugee boyfriend from school? One of the other men paying court? A Kuomintang “Blue Shirt” enforcer? A criminal from the nearby “Badlands” red light district? Two professional cops—a Chinese colonel and a British inspector—teamed up to try to solve the case. Unsatisfied with their work, Pamela’s father undertook his own investigation. French scours the records and unearths long-forgotten documents to tell us what they learned—and what they missed. It seems clear from his reconstruction that few of those involved had clean hands. The British diplomatic service in particular should be deeply ashamed of its shoddy behavior.

Using what he calls the technique of “literary non-fiction,” French weaves an exceptionally detailed, rich tapestry in this gripping story of the people, places and atmosphere of a city on the edge of an abyss.

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