Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

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by Paul French

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Winner of the both the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime and the CWA Non-Fiction Dagger

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner's body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the

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Winner of the both the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime and the CWA Non-Fiction Dagger

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner's body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking.

Editorial Reviews

"For me," Peter French told an interviewer, "crime stories—real or fiction—are ultimately all about character, period, and location." For this longtime Shanghai resident and old China hand, the 1937 Peking murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner possesses all the essential elements of a classic mystery. Officially unsolved, the brutal murder of the alluring British teenager spawned whole swarms of suspects: Was it this devilish deed the work of ring-wing Chinese, extremist White Russian exiles, or vengeful colonial nudists? French's true crime narrative has richness that even most of the best whodunits lack. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book; editor's recommendation.

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The eastern section of old Peking has been dominated since the fifteenth century by a looming watchtower, built as part of the Tartar Wall to protect the city from invaders. Known as the Fox Tower, it was believed to be haunted by fox spirits, a superstition that meant the place was deserted at night.

After dark the area became the preserve of thousands of bats, which lived in the eaves of the Fox Tower and flitted across the moonlight like giant shadows. The only other living presence was the wild dogs, whose howling kept the locals awake. On winter mornings the wind stung exposed hands and eyes, carrying dust from the nearby Gobi Desert. Few people ventured out early at this time of year, opting instead for the warmth of their beds.

But just before dawn on 8 January 1937, rickshaw pullers passing along the top of the Tartar Wall, which was wide enough to walk or cycle on, noticed lantern lights near the base of the Fox Tower, and indistinct figures moving about. With neither the time nor the inclination to stop, they went about their business, heads down, one foot in front of the other, avoiding the fox spirits.

When daylight broke on another freezing day, the tower was deserted once more. The colony of bats circled one last time before the creeping sun sent them back to their eaves. But in the icy wasteland between the road and the tower, the wild dogs—the huang gou– were prowling curiously, sniffing at something alongside a ditch.

It was the body of a young woman, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost. Her clothing was dishevelled, her body badly mutilated. On her wrist was an expensive watch that had stopped just after midnight.

It was the morning after the Russian Christmas, thirteen days after the Western Christmas by the old Julian calendar.

Peking at that time had a population of some one and a half million, of which only two thousand, perhaps three, were foreigners. They were a disparate group, ranging from stiff-backed consuls and their diplomatic staff to destitute White Russians. In between were journalists, a few businessmen, some old China hands who’d lived in Peking since the days of the Qing dynasty and felt they could never leave. And there was no shortage of foreign criminals, dope fiends and prostitutes who’d somehow washed up in northern China.

Peking’s foreigners clustered in and around a small enclave known as the Legation Quarter, where the great powers of Europe, America and Japan had their embassies and consulates—institutions that were always referred to as legations. Just two square acres in size, the strictly demarcated Legation Quarter was guarded by imposing gates and armed sentries, with signs ordering rickshaw pullers to slow down for inspection as they passed through. Inside was a haven of Western architecture, commerce and entertainment—a profusion of clubs, hotels and bars that could just as easily have been in London, Paris or Washington.

Both the Chinese and foreigners of Peking had been living with chaos and uncertainty for a long time. Ever since the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the city had been at the mercy of one marauding warlord after another. Nominally China was ruled by the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, but the government competed for power with the warlords and their private armies, who controlled swathes of territory as large as western Europe. Peking and most of northern China was a region in flux.

Whatever the ferocity of the storm building outside—in Chinese Peking, in the Japanese-occupied north, across China and its 400 million people to the south—the privileged foreigners in the Legation Quarter sought to maintain their European face at all costs.

More than a few foreign residents of the Legation Quarter in its heyday described themselves as inmates, but if this gated and guarded section was indeed a cage then it was a gilded one, with endless games of bridge to pass the time. Sandwiched between the legations were exclusive clubs, grand hotels and department stores.

It was Europe in miniature, with European road names and electric streetlights. But lately the once-packed hotels and clubs had been a little somber, and sometimes they were half empty. In truth, the Wagons Lits and other night spots were out of date. Shanghai had better bars, had much better everything. Peking was a relic, a one-time capital that was now far too close to the Japanese war machine. The city, its foreigners and their clubs were victims of history and geography.

To make matters worse, rumour had it that Chiang Kai-shek was about to cut a deal with Tokyo. Chiang had fought a long and bitter internecine battle to become leader of the Kuomintang and his position was still precarious; he had political challengers to stave off as well as the Japanese, the warlords and the Communists. Many people believed he would sacrifice Peking in order to save his own skin.

The city’s inhabitants felt betrayed, expendable. The mood on the streets, of both foreign and Chinese Peking—in the crowded hutong, or alleyways, in the teeming markets where prices were rising and supplies of essentials were dwindling—was one of fear mixed with resignation.

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 the Second World War. For now foreign Peking was in an uneasy lull, on the edge of panic at times, although an alcohol-fuelled 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.

The hunt for a young woman’s killer was about to consume, and in some ways define, the cold and final days of old Peking.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“This is a good murder story, well told, with all the additional pleasures that a knowledgeable tour guide to old China can provide. Grateful readers could scarcely ask for more.”  – Joseph Kanon, author of Istanbul Passage, in The Washington Post

“Never less than fascinating… one of the best portraits of between-the-wars China that has yet been written.” – The Wall Street Journal

“Midnight in Peking is both a detective story and a social history, and therefore – as it should – always keeps the hunt for Pamela’s killers somewhere near the center of the narrative. [Paul French] is a wonderfully dexterous guide” – Jonathan Spence in The New York Review of Books

“A crime story set among sweeping events is reminiscent of Graham Greene, particularly The Third Man, while French's terse, tightly-focussed style has rightly been compared to Chandler. Midnight in Peking deserves a place alongside both these masters.” – The Independent

“A page-turning and fascinating true crime book. This is a genre-breaker that captures the atmosphere of 1930s Peking.” – The Bookseller [selected as One to Watch]

“…the most talked-about read in town this year.” – The New Yorker’s Page-Turner Blog

“Midnight in Peking is true-crime writing at its best, full of vivid characters, an exotic locale, secrets galore, and a truly bewildering mystery.” – The Christian Science Monitor

“…A compulsively readable true crime work in the tradition of Devil in the White City.” – The Atlantic.com

“Not only does Mr. French succeed in solving the crime, he resurrects a period that was filled with glitter as well as evil, but was never, as readers will appreciate, known for being dull.” – The Economist

“An engrossing read” – Oprah.com

“In today’s Beijing, French’s portrait feels surprisingly germane.” – The Los Angeles Times

“Part historical docudrama, part tragic opera… [French] tells this sorry tale with the skill of an Agatha Christie.” – The Financial Times

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Midnight in Peking : How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
shayrp76 More than 1 year ago
Peking China in 1937 was in turmoil. Opium dens, prostitution, and superstitions were just the everyday concerns. The bigger reality was that the Japanese were gearing up to barge into the city and the citizens were on alert. The murder of Pamela Werner could not have come at a worse time. With very few clues and reluctant witnesses a Chinese and a British detective have very little time to solve the gruesome murder. I immediately became captivated by Pamela Werner’s story and was invested in learning the conclusion. All of the little details that went into explaining the problems surrounding those who lived in the city and all of the politics that went into suppressing evidence from investigators gave me insight into the frustration of Pamela’s case. The author worked hard to tell Pamela Werner’s story and it shows. It flowed well and never felt overwhelming leaving me with an interest in learning more about the history of that time and place. I recommend this to anyone, especially to those who enjoy true crime.
cubicleblindnessKM More than 1 year ago
Historian Paul French puts a bit of a unique twist on True Crime. He focuses on a unsolved murder that took place in China just at the onset of war with Japan. The mixing of different cultures and peoples at this time in Peking's history is pivotal factor in why this crime was unable to be solved . The balance between the cultural history and development of Peking and the procedures taken to solve this crime were equal factors. As the murder victim was originally from Britain both police forces had to work together. They were also given a time limit on how long they had to unravel the details and arrest a suspect. When the time limit is up, Pamela's father takes on the case himself and with all of these documents 75 years later, the author believes he has solved the mystery and presents it to us in a very convincing format. After telling her father that she was going roller skating, Pamela fails to come home. He goes looking for her and comes across a murder scene in which the dead is literally gutted and unrecognizable that he has to identify her body by a piece of jewelery and her hair color. All of her body organs are removed and her face is butchered. Leading the investigation into several different directions, most likely being that this was not an crime of passion, and whereas there is no blood at the site of the body the murder had to have been carried out elsewhere. And this is what leads them into a large amount of questioning of people, business owners and possible witnesses that were out that night in various parts of the city that Pamela was known to frequent. The author gives us insight into the city of Peking. How the people that were coming and going from this city at this particular part of history were just as much a part of the way that the investigation was handled as the murder itself. People and businesses coming and going in the recent years with the impending war with Japan looming upon them. The combination of rules and regulations that both sides of the police forces had to abide by and a time limit that could only frustrate matters. Even her own father who was very familiar with Peking himself, unable to to find the answers before he died as well. A sad story that the author was able to bring to light many years later.
Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Paul French, a historian and an expert on China, takes us back to Peking in 1937. The Japanese are surrounding the city. Superstitions are running high. The Chinese believe in things like the "dreaded fox spirits". Paula Werner was just a school girl, a bit headstrong and free thinking, living with her father in Peking unless she was away at boarding school. Her father was a scholar and a retired British Consul. She had gone out to spend time with friends but never returns home. Then a body was found murdered, mutilated, organs removed, it even appeared the killer tried to cut her arm completely off and her face is almost unrecognizable. The body is later identified as Paula Werner. Because of her father's British connection the investigation became quite a circus. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis is brought in from Tientsin to assist the Chinese detectives but both governments really tie their hands to where, who and how they can investigate. With the suspect list growing and few actual clues, will the crime be solved before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Dollycas's Thoughts This is a very well researched story. It is a time in history that is pretty unknown in general history of the world taught in school in the U.S. French presents the information methodically but I almost felt overloaded by all of it. The lengthy descriptions of buildings, streets and alleys. The history of the time set forth in paragraph and after paragraph of dates and events and their effect on the nation. While all very interesting I felt the story of Pamela Werner got a bit lost at times. The roadblocks met by the detectives were immense and removed the expected drama of searching out the killer. Her father's continued dedication to getting justice for his daughter was unwavering. His need to employ private detectives to find the truth, but never enough evidence to arrest or convict was heartbreaking. I know the author had to follow the facts and this is a true telling. It took a great effort for me to finish this book. History enthusiasts will appreciate all the detail but everyday readers of true crime and mystery will find themselves like me skimming over the pages to get to a solution that never really comes because of the restrictions/corruption by both the Chinese and British governments. French probably did identify the real killer but because of the obstacles in place at the time of the crime and the lack of crucial information the murder is still unresolved. The outcome is not the authors fault as he cannot rewrite history.
smittenword More than 1 year ago
Pamela Werner was a high-spirited, independent young woman living with her father in Peking, China during the late 1930s. On a cold January night in 1937, Pamela was found brutally murdered at the foot of one of Peking’s well-known landmarks – the Fox Tower. Pre-world war II Peking was a stressful place to live. China was in the midst of a civil war and the Japanese had invaded and were waiting for the opportunity to capture the city. Nerves were frayed. A cloud of doom hung over the streets. Even the well-protected foreign nationals were feeling the shifting of events. But the brutal murder of Pamela Werner kicked the anxieties of the city up several notches. Both the Chinese and foreign nationals fearfully wondered who could have butchered this innocent young girl. Paul French’s Midnight In Peking is a masterfully woven non-fiction murder mystery peopled with smug British diplomats, harried Scotland Yard detectives, Chinese police officers with mysterious agendas, an American dentist with degraded, lustful designs, and a beautiful young woman who isn’t all that she seems. French has done his research, and his findings from the papers of Pamela’s father are most intriguing. Even after the British dropped the case, Werner doggedly pursued his daughter’s murderer asking help from the Chinese and even the occupying Japanese. His determination to find his daughter’s killer is inspiring. Midnight In Peking reads like a true-to-life Agatha Christie with a lot more carnality. Peking, like most places, had a dark side that could lure a naïve young woman to her death, and French takes us there. This is no stuffy history text. It’s a blood and guts whodunit that twists and turns through the not so savory back alleys of the present capital of China and digs up dirt on some of her upstanding citizens and those not so upstanding. French delivers history you can smell, taste, and feel. Midnight in Peking transports you to an extremely turbulent time in China’s history and puts you in the middle of the events that transpired that frigid night. History and mystery. As a fan of both genres, Midnight in Peking is a win-win. .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I generally steer clear of non-fiction, a Diane Rheme interview with the author and the book's inclusion on many "best" lists, prompted me to read the book. The first chapters were slow, but once French's detailed descriptions of the victim, the suspects and the landscape were defined, I felt I was in pre-war Peking along with the lead, yet ineffective, polarly dispatched detectives. I was so immersed that I needed to search out photos and maps. A story so twisted that had this been fiction, it might be hard to believe. The last quarter of the book with the father's search results made this even more satisfying.
dwightdavidmorgan More than 1 year ago
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING has all of the elements of a great crime novel: an innocent victim brutally murdered, a variety of possible perpetrators with mysterious motives, and a fascinating historical setting. But Paul French’s fascinating book is not fiction. It is a compelling and carefully researched account of the 1930s murder of Pamela Werner, daughter of a retired British diplomat living in pre-War China. The telling is reminiscent of an Erik Larson book (e.g. DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY) in that it presents two parallel stories, one the investigation of Pamela’s macabre demise and the other the turmoil of Peking, threatened by warlords, war-hungry Japan and the emerging Communists. At times the prose bogs a bit, as French seems to try to stretch the tale unnecessarily. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy effort and a great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Avid-FLA-reader More than 1 year ago
Very well written and a most interesting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a poorly researched book professing to be an accurate historical record of a "cold case". it beggars belief that the author has invented testimony, and has not supplied adequate referencing to support the claims to veracity. The prose is repetative. This slim notion of a story has been unrealistically padded with endless supposition. The punchline is an acknowledged invention by the author- it is a shame he didnt have the decency to admit the rest was of similar origin.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yoda and The Commanders sit at a holo-table, talking the situation over.
EAW1025 More than 1 year ago
Great true historical read. If you like the past, murder and mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reads like a true crime story, than historical text. Fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down. Paul French has done an excellent job.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Paul French has produced a well written book. I suggest that anyone not familiar with China, purchase a large world atlas and have it handy. Once the book is read, then search Google images for specific images, but not before completing the book.
Chowbell More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. Even if you are not that interested in the details of the history of China at that time, it is still a page turner. Others on this page have said this better than I, but I wanted to add my recommendation of this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Such pleasure to read this well written and well researched book . I could not put it down.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An incredible read. Grabs you from page one.