Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war. In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching. In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits. Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator. They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.
My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French. In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives. It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime. I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.
So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others? Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age. She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays. Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels. Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries. This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation. Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team. In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women. Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well. Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.
French unfurls the story well. He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well. A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel. I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were. I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class. In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important. It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:
Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)
I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking. It took a bit to truly get into the story. A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice. At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl. But that’s not the story at all. The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people. It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.
Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism. It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.
4 out of 5 stars