Review: MIDNIGHT IN PEKING by Paul French, published by Penguin

I’ve spent quite some times reviewing crime books recently, and here’s another – except this one isn’t fiction. 

In the early morning in January 1937 the body of a late-teenaged British girl, Pamela, daughter of the city’s former consul, ETC Werner. She had been appallingly mutilated, and even her breast had been opened and her heart cut out. 

This was in those terrible days for China. She suffered civil wars, rebellions, Japanese invasion, and one murder in a period of such horror and slaughter was hardly a pressing matter. But some police wanted to find justice for the girl. DCI Dennis and his Chinese counterpart, Colonel Han, began to investigate, but Dennis was hamstrung by a British desire to hurry and not rock any boats. 

One of the first on the scene was the tall, slim widower ETC Werner himself. He was a keen sinophile, a man who had learned Chinese and was known to be an expert in all things to do with the huge territory. He loved the country. But he was a curious man, ascetic, intelligent, but very private. At first it seemed clear that he was the primary suspect. Pamela was not his natural child, but adopted. And it is true that usually the police will expect the perpetrator to be close to home – but soon Dennis and Han learned that his involvement was unlikely.

There was little blood at the scene. She must have been killed elsewhere and her body brought to he desolate spot where she had been discovered. Soon a blood-soaked rickshaw was discovered; then there was the discovery of a lascivious school headmaster at her grammar-school; rumours of Triads involvement; a boyfriend; and a group of Peking residents who knew more than they had let on initially. 

It was soon obvious that Werner himself was entirely innocent, but Dennis’ superiors wanted the matter dropped. There was too much else going on. He was advised that he had no authority, that he was there solely to observe, and that he must leave all the work to Han. But he didn’t. He was a policeman, apparently, who believed in justice, and he was convinced that the matter could be put to bed. 

But war and the Japanese intervened. Soon the police were pulled from the case and returned to Tientsin, and Werner was left with the conviction that the Chinese police were themselves involved in a cover-up. But although Pamela was an adopted daughter, he was determined to do all he could for her. She was his daughter. 

What could a man like him, an academic, do to find the murderer of his daughter?

He had money, he had a library, and he had a good brain. And armed with these he began to conduct his own investigations into Pamela’s death. As he learned more and more about the seedier side of Peking’s ex-pat community, he began to bombard Colonel Han and the British authorities with his discoveries, and they were startling. More, he began to form a complete picture of her last hours, found the room where she had been murdered and cut up, and was able to describe a shocking system of grooming young women, drug-taking, gang-raping, and then threatening them against disclosing what had happened. 

This story came about because after the war Werner continued his investigations and harassed the British colonial offices to have the culprits brought to book. But China at the time was sinking into civil war again, and his letters were filed without response. They remained filed and ignored until Paul French discovered them, and gradually began to piece together the whole story.

This is a superb piece of work that reads like a thriller, but which also manages to capture a period and show what life was like in those terrible days just before the Second World War, before the Japanese had overwhelmed the Chinese, and before the Communist revolution. It is a book that deserves to be read, if only to try to give some kind of justice to Pamela, the victim of an appalling crime, and the girls who were assaulted with her. 

You will notice that I don’t often recommend non-fiction books. That is because they tend to be rather dry, and usually difficult to read. However this is very different. I couldn’t put it down. 

Highly recommended.

2 Responses to “Review: MIDNIGHT IN PEKING by Paul French, published by Penguin”
  1. I was so impressed with this review, I bought the book straight away. It will give me a sense of China at the time and be good background to read your detective novel set in China. Thanks for posting this review.


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Michael…


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