Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Midnight in Peking

Penguin Books: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Penguin: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Penguin Books: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Penguin Books: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking

by Paul French

In a city of privilege and vice, red-light districts and opium dens, avarice and corruption, the savage murder of an innocent girl will shock thousands of residents, even as an enemy army is poised to sweep away life as they know it. Paul French (The Old Shanghai A-Z), analyst and commentator, once again takes readers back to pre-Communist China, but this time he breaks the true-crime mold with gripping detective noir style in Midnight in Peking.

As the sun rises after a bitterly cold Peking night in January 1937, a local man out for his daily constitutional makes a chilling discovery. At the foot of a certain watchtower, rumored to be the haunting ground of fox spirits, a young foreign woman lies murdered and mutilated, her organs cut out, her limbs and neck partially severed. Peking police predict difficulty identifying the victim due to the lacerations on her face until E.T.C. Werner, former British diplomat, arrives on the scene and cries out the name that will soon echo through Peking, the name of his only child: Pamela.

From the beginning, the mystery surrounding Pamela Werner's murder proves a tangled puzzle. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, former Scotland Yard man, now head of the British Municipal Police in Tientsin, is called to Peking to investigate the crime, but he faces a string of dead ends. Although Pamela's body was discovered at the watchtower, the actual murder scene remains unknown. Early interrogations fail to turn up a suspect with any reason to hurt Pamela, and Dennis finds his hands tied with red tape as his superiors discourage him from investigating any leads that involve the foreign community. With roughly 20 days to work before he is legally required to present further evidence to keep the investigation alive, Dennis races the clock but hits barrier after barrier as his resources are scaled back and pressure to return to Tientsin mounts. Finally, his investigations lead him to believe the murder may have been ordered by a powerful Chinese warlord, a man untouchable through legal channels. Discouraged and ordered home, Dennis must drop the case. However, even as the threat of Japanese invasion mounts and the government declares Pamela's case unsolved and closed, Pamela's father grows ever more determined to bring his daughter's murderer to justice. No matter the cost, no matter the risk to his life and personal liberty, E.T.C. Werner vows to catch the killer. His surprising discoveries will lead him into the seedier side of Peking's expatriate community and provide the key to his daughter's untimely demise.

Using data from police reports and news articles as well as the reports from E.T.C. Werner's investigations, French unfolds a nonfiction story with all the skill and suspense of a great detective novelist. Interweaving Dennis's investigation with details of life in pre-WWII Peking, French takes the reader on a vivid tour of a community of aristocrats and con men, bureaucrats and pimps, a microcosm of propriety and barely concealed vice hovering on the brink of destruction.

Delving into personal histories, Paul French reconstructs the personalities of the mystery's cast, from police investigators to brothel madams to, most evocatively, Pamela herself. French uses Dennis's investigation of suspects to illuminate each person's connection to Pamela and gradually uncover the facets of her personality, slowly building a portrait of a lively, personable, and trusting young woman whose feelings of isolation led her down a dark path.

French's careful attention to atmosphere, historical accuracy and character development evokes in the reader the same sympathy and frustration at thwarted justice that led him to write Pamela's story, the sense that at the very least, her memory must be honored. Follow him on a chilling and enlightening journey to the heart of old China and find out what spirits still lurk in the shadows of the fox spirits' watchtower. --Jaclyn Fulwood

In addition to browsing the maps and photos in the book, readers will want to browse Midnight in Peking's website to enrich their reading experience. Site visitors can use interactive maps to explore Pamela's Peking, download reading guides to use in book club discussions and even take a virtual walking tour of the book's major scenes, narrated by the eloquent author himself.

Penguin, $26, hardcover, 9780143121008, April 24, 2012

Penguin Books: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Paul French: A Certain Justice

Paul French is a widely published business analyst and commentator on China as well as a historian. Born in London and a graduate of the University of Glasgow, he now resides in Shanghai.

Tell us about how you became involved with telling the story of Pamela Werner.

I came across a small footnote briefly telling the story of Pamela's murder in 1937--that it was terrible, that it happened on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China, that a Chinese and a British detective worked together, that it lifted the lid on a hornet's nest of scandals in the European community of the city and that it was never solved. I decided to dig around and see what I could find out. Pretty early on, I saw a picture of Pamela in an old 1930s newspaper, taken just weeks before her murder. From that point on, I knew I was going to have to try and find out what had happened to her.

What were the challenges of sticking to the facts while making Midnight in Peking a page-turner?

The first draft of the book was a straight work of nonfiction. But the characters didn't come alive, the Peking of 1937 with its seething scandals, tensions and fears didn't come across. I decided to go back and try and use the style of a literary detective novel. It's tricky because you want to maintain the pace and remain rigorous in your research.

Tell us about your research process.

It began with the easy stuff--dig out the old Chinese newspapers from the time, see if there were any memoirs from those days, any reports from the police and the diplomatic service. I also got lucky in that, despite being back before the Second World War, I found half a dozen people who had known Pamela and remembered the murder. Once everyone has died, then the gossip dies, too, and that's a really important dimension to include. I was also very fortunate that in London I stumbled across the papers and evidence Pamela's father had assembled after the Japanese occupied Peking, after the official police investigation was halted.

How much did your travels in modern-day China inform your portrait of historic Peking (now Beijing)?

Beijing is a city that has changed beyond recognition... almost. I was really lucky that, despite all the demolition and new skyscrapers of the last few decades, many of the locations that featured in the murder were still there. The Fox Tower, where Pamela's body was found, is the last of the original four watchtowers of Peking to survive; the section of the old Tartar Wall around the Imperial City that she was last seen on is the only bit to survive today. While so many of Beijing's traditional old lanes and alleyways (the hutongs) have been bulldozed, Pamela's old home on Armour Factory Alley remains, while both the old foreign enclave of the Legation Quarter and the winding lanes that formed the old red light area of the "badlands" also remain. Pure chance really, but a massive bonus for me, able to wander them and try to imagine what they looked like in 1937.

How convinced are you that the conclusion you draw in the book, heavily founded upon Pamela's father's investigations, is the true solution to the murder?

Pamela's father was indeed, in one sense, a cold man and a distant and unemotional father. When I found ETC Werner's extensive notes on his private investigation to track down his daughter's killers, I knew I was having a "eureka" moment--it'll never happen to me again! But after that initial process of checking and cross referencing and deciding that he had got to the root of the crime with his dogged determination I realized some other things--that he really did love Pamela, that he was willing to ruin his health, bankrupt himself and face personal danger to win justice for her. For me he started as a cold and emotionless man and ended as a deeply committed father; I hope that comes across to the reader because it was a transformation that happened to him and to my view of him during the writing process as his investigation unfurled before me.

Did you find writing about such a heartbreaking tragedy emotionally taxing?

I think there is something profoundly disturbing to our innate sense of natural justice in unsolved murders. We believe that killers should be caught and should be punished. Every night we watch TV shows where the bad guys are caught, read novels where the killers never get away with it, but in real life they often do. Pamela's killers got away with it and then, as the last days of Peking turned into war and the horrors of the Japanese occupation of China, Pamela was forgotten. The old adage "one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" appears to be true. When I started to write Midnight in Peking, I didn't know if I could solve Pamela's murder, I didn't even know if any publishers or any readers would be interested in this old, long-forgotten case, but I did think that it was an important act to record Pamela's brief life--there seemed to me a certain justice in that.

What do you plan to write about next?

I want to stay with literary nonfiction, China and the first half of the 20th century. Back when I first read about Pamela's murder, I had been writing about Shanghai before the Second World War, which is where I live and, I think, know best. I want to tell the story of this incredible city where East met West and created one of the greatest metropolises on earth, with gangsterism to rival Chicago and a nightlife culture to rival New York, which truly became both the "Paris of the East" and the "Whore of the Orient" simultaneously--there are a lot of good tales to tell of those days, believe me! --Jaclyn Fulwood

author photo: Lucy Cavender

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