January 1937. On a bitterly cold night, the body of a young Englishwoman is found underneath the Fox Tower in eastern Peking. The murdered girl is Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired British diplomat and her killer vanished into the darkness. Midnight in Peking by Paul French is the definitive account of this forgotten girl’s murder.
It’s important to note that this book is nonfiction but it’s just as compelling as any crime novel. Most importantly, it reads like one too, with a mystery-style prose, world-building, and an ability to focus a plethora of facts and data into one coherent narrative.
Gradually, a portrait of Pamela Werner begins to emerge; part innocent schoolgirl, part adventurous vixen. There’s no central protagonist, but in the first half we follow along with two police officers; one Chinese, Colonel Han, and one British, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Dennis. These two officers work together with Han interviewing any Chinese leads and Dennis pursuing any in the foreign community. French wisely decides to dramatize their investigations instead of simply recounting the important events.
A vivid portrait of DCI Dennis is painted, a stern veteran of Scotland Yard and an old China hand on loan from Tientsin. Details for Colonel Han are more sparse but the reader tags along on their investigation as if we’re there with them.
1937 Peking was a city out of place. After becoming the nominal leader of China, Chiang Kai-shek moved the seat of government from Peking down to Nanking. The city was even officially renamed from Peking (Northern Capital) to Peiping (Northern Peace). Nanking had become the political center while Shanghai was the financial capital. Peking, with its broad avenues, hutong alleyways, temples, and relics from ancient dynasties, was becoming an anachronism, the de facto spiritual capital of China.
A common theme of the book is dread. The Japanese Army, secure in its northern puppet state of Manchukuo, might pounce any minute and consume Peking. Spies plague the city, advance guards to a war that everyone feels is inevitable. The Japanese also operated many drug houses, operated by Korean frontmen in the more crime-ridden portion of the city.
As with all large cities, Peking had its seedy side in the form of the Badlands. The Chuanpan hutong was the main thoroughfare into this sinister enclave of vice and violence, full of dive bars, opium dens, and brothels. Eventually, we learn that Pamela Werner was last seen in the Peking Badlands but lack of evidence causes their investigation to stagnate.
There’s no shortage of suspects. They range from the headmaster of a school where Pamela attended to a rogue’s gallery of misfit expats who lead double lives inside the Badlands. My personal favorite involved Helen Foster Snow, wife of the famous American journalist Edgar Snow. Left-wing and sympathetic to the Chinese Communists, Snow’s 1936 book Red Star Over China introduced Western leaders to Mao and the Long March.
This glamorization of the Communists raised the ire of the ruling Kuomintang, specifically the paramilitary wing nicknamed the ‘Blue Shirts’ which emulated the trappings of European fascism right down to the colored shirts. This organization, Helen claimed to Dennis, had been responsible for multiple kidnappings and assassinations of supposed Kuomintang enemies. Pamela Werner and Helen Foster Snow bore a striking resemblance to each other, leading Dennis to consider the validity that her murder was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Paul French’s dramatic writing really shines through here, and you feel the suffocating weight of paranoia right along with Dennis.
Eventually, the investigation stalls and the Sino-Japanese War begins in July 1937. Peking is taken within a month and the killer is still out of there. Pamela’s father takes over, spending the remainder of his savings to answer the dark mystery that shattered his peace. But as he descended into the Peking netherworld, world events are spiraling out of control, and the truth about what happened to that English girl might be forever lost to history.
Paul French Interview
1) You got the inspiration for Midnight in Peking while reading an Edgar Snow biography. Additionally, you’ve written extensively about China and its history. What got you interested in the subject?
I studied Chinese history and then mandarin at university and afterwards and ended up living in Shanghai for over ten years and visiting Beijing regularly. Additionally, my great grandfather was stationed in Shanghai in the 1920s for a few years with the Royal Navy so that kind of got me excited about the place from around 6 years old. I always had a fascination with those foreigners that had lived in China in the first half of the twentieth century and have been researching them ever since.
2) Midnight in Peking reads like a mystery/thriller novel. Did you always intend to write it that way or did you initially write it in a more detached, academic prose?
I did a number of books about China previously – not quite academic, but certainly niche and they were published by Hong Kong University Press. I did a biography of the great adman and Shanghailander Carl Crow who lived in the city and commented on it constantly between 1911 and 1937; then a history of foreign correspondents in China from the opium wars to 1949. But I wanted to combine a way of writing Chinese modern history but with a great story to get out beyond just those who study or are keen on China to a much wider audience. I read about the Pamela Werner murder in 1937 Peking and thought it a good subject. I do read quite a lot of crime fiction and it’s a great time to be writing quality true crime – it’s a ‘golden era’ for the genre, so they say. Form follows content I think and I felt Midnight in Peking should be in the style of a procedural crime novel, just as i thought my latest book City of Devils should be dark neo-noir.
3) Has the Chinese media given any coverage to Midnight in Peking or the murder of Pamela Werner since the book came out?
Yes, there’s long been a Chinese translation on the mainland (and in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong too). The Chinese censors requested no changes to the text and the book has sold well – indeed a new, enlarged edition with more photos and maps is coming out next year in the PRC. It generated a lot of buzz – it was certainly something different for many Chinese readers. It was gratifying to get so many emails (or WeChat messages in China!) from local readers who had never really learnt that much history of that period and certainly weren’t very aware of all the foreigners living in Beijing at the time.
4) Because this case is obscure and never officially solved, was it more difficult to research than your other books? How long did it take you to write?
Years of research! I had a full time job in Shanghai at the time too. But I was very fortunate that the murder was investigated by the Chinese and a British police together so most of the records were kept by both sides and the British documents survived. The case was sensational at the time so the Chinese newspapers, as well as the English language newspapers in China, all covered it in detail. Finally I was lucky enough to find a cache of documents by Pamela’s father lodged in the UK National Archives in Kew that historians had never really made use of. Once i had all that I guess it was a six month write up project.
5) Were there any amusing facts or anecdotes about 1937 Peking or the murder case that you were unable to use in the book or were simply cut in the editing process?
For me the inclusion of things that never seriously figured in the investigation were interesting – around murders swell all sorts of superstitions and rumour. I tried to include them all in the book, for instance that many Chinese believed Fox Spirits had been involved, or that Pamela herself was an evil Fox Spirit. Additionally a few old people who were children at the time passed along the dinnertable gossip they heard from their parents as kids. This is all part of any contemporary investigation but gets lost over time. I felt very lucky to have managed to hear some of it before that generation all passed away and the stories died with them.
6) The way you describe the Badlands as Peking’s seedy underbelly was very evocative and fascinating. While researching, did you find anything else about the Badlands that you think might merit a book?
The characters of Shura Giraldi, a real life White Russian hermaphrodite who ran many bars, brothels and nightclubs in Peking’s Badlands was fascinating. He deserves more research and there are so many stories swirling around him/her (Shura changed from male to female identities as it suited). Shura is legendary at that time in both Peking and Shanghai so I’d like to get to know him/her a lot more. People who’d known Shura as a woman for years were occasionally shocked to see him walking through Peking in a tailored suit; others in Shanghai who knew him as a man were surprised when he appeared at a nightclub in a beautiful dress.
7) Ultimately, you end up agreeing with Werner’s conclusion as to who killed his daughter. Was there at any point that was in doubt or the evidence took you down a different path?
Well, there are other theories. I came to agree with Werner personally but I’m aware of course that his evidence and accusations never came before a court. The first half of my book is essentially the police investigation (thwarted ultimately by the Japanese invasion of Peking); the second part is Werner’s own investigation and effectively the case for the prosecution. I accept there can also be alternative views. But I have yet to see any convincing evidence – new or reinterpreted – that discredits old man Werners.
8) 1920/s1930s Peking has received far less attention than 1920s/1930s Shanghai. My sense was that 1937 Peking was something of an anachronism, a relic in the compared to Shanghai, full of old buildings and hutongs. Nanking was the government capital and Shanghai the financial capital while Peking looked like it might have been relegated to a perhaps spiritual capital. I feel this might have continued had Mao not chosen it as his capital. Am I inaccurate in this belief?
Pretty much. By the 1930s Peking was becoming a back water – plagued by rival warring warlords, too close to Japanese occupied Manchuria, a centre for scholars, traditionalists and many religions in China but well away from the modernity and money of Shanghai or the political power centre of Nanking. Of course, historically China’s capital has moved around from dynasty to dynasty – Peking means northern capital; Nanking means southern capital and there have been other candidates too over the centuries. Mao opted to restore Peking (essentially a city created by the Mongol-run Yuan Dynasty) to political prominence and so it remains today – at least for the duration of this Communist Dynasty!
9) Have there been any developments in the case since you wrote the book?
There have been minor things – there’s a couple of interesting extra witnesses (though I think they confirm Werners theories). Most interesting is that researchers have become more aware of the former “Badlands” in Peking, which had really been all but forgotten or overlooked before my book. I have seen US soldier maps of the area that I hadn’t seen before that refer to the main street in the Badlands (Chuanban Hutong) as “Heroin Alley”, literally confirming my descriptions of the hutong.
10) Could you tell us about your latest book?
City of Devils takes place around the same time as Midnight in Peking but is all about the great city of Shanghai (where I lived for 20 years). It’s really about the rise of two men and the casino-nightclub empire they built. But it takes place largely between August 1937, when the Japanese attacked eastern China, and Pearl Harbour in 1941. During that time the famous Chinese gangs that had run Shanghai for decades (the Green Gang and the infamous Du “Big Eared” Yuesheng) left town to escape the war. The criminal rackets of the city and its own “Badlands” fell into the hands of those who could not leave the city – the stateless Russians, the Jewish refugees from Europe and a motley assortment of international criminals on the run and holed up in Shanghai. Once again, it’s all true (lots of photos!) – no invented characters, locations or events. I’m firmly convinced (despite religiously reading novels) that truth is always more exciting, and definitely stranger, than fiction.