Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Midnight in Peking by Paul French Review

Peking, January, 1937, and the body of white teenager Pamela Werner is discovered in the early hours of the morning. Her body has been viciously mutilated, her face damaged nearly beyond recognition, and her heart cut out. The murder caused an enormous scandal across the Empire – who killed Pamela?

I suppose “spoilers” - even though it’s recorded history. 

In Midnight in Peking, Paul French revisits this long-forgotten crime in an attempt to find answers to the unsolved cold case. The story of Pamela’s murder reveals a colourful and dramatic background of this time, and, though a somewhat laboured read in places, the book is on the whole quite interesting – but how convincing are French’s conclusions? Very one-sided, so, very convincing, but by no means conclusive or necessarily factual. 

In French’s version of the killing, we learn about Pamela’s complex hidden life. Adopted as the baby of an unknown White Russian (one of many displaced by the revolution), she was the only child of ETC Werner and Gladys Nina Ravenshaw. Her mother died young of a suspected intentional drug overdose and it’s heavily implied that she and her father, who was much older than her, in his 70s at the time of her death, did not get along.

Werner himself is written as a fusty old man, an intellectual but anti-social loner who could not get along with the majority of people. He even beat some people he disliked, like one of Pamela’s suitors, smashing his face with his cane! Pamela herself had a temper and was kicked out of numerous schools – the last one because her headmaster allegedly came onto her!

The Western population of Peking at this time is written as this close-knit society with many secrets. Going by French’s book, just about everyone was a sexual deviant, drug addict, or violent criminal! Pamela, an independent young woman, mixed in, garnering many admirers, but was unfortunately ensnared by a covert gang of rapists, some of them upstanding members of society like a dentist and a doctor, who didn’t take no as an answer and went too far when she put up a fight.

French’s examination of the case is interesting but at times a bit exhausting. Every aspect of the time is expanded upon – the historical background, the careers of numerous people, Chinese mythology, and so on. It can be a bit of a slog to wade through all the detail. Also, the repeated mentions of “fox spirits”, particularly in the novelistic interludes, were a silly inclusion for a supposedly serious historical work of nonfiction.

What ultimately makes this book unconvincing is the elaborate mystery French reveals. After the official investigation into Pamela’s murder, jointly conducted by the Chinese and British Legation police, nobody is arrested – to this day, Pamela’s murderer (or murderers) got away with it. Then Pamela’s father, ETC Werner, decides to conduct his own investigation, hiring private detectives and does a better job of crime-solving than the police did.

Werner compiles a huge dossier of “evidence” gathered from disreputable sources – pimps and prostitutes chasing cash rewards – and it’s this information that French uses for much of the second half of the book. And it sounds a little paranoid! According to Werner, the Chinese and British police fudged the investigation on purpose while British diplomats hushed up the scandal. They were protecting an American dentist called Prentice, an Italian doctor, and a couple of drug addicts/criminals. These were Pamela’s supposed killers, men from different backgrounds brought together by their love of hunting and vice who had a history of luring girls into the back room of a brothel and raping them. Pamela was the latest victim who fought back and so they had to kill her.

Why would the British police and diplomats cover for these non-British undesirables over one of their own (Werner was an ex-consul)? Sure, Werner wasn’t well liked, but that wouldn’t mean British officials would be willing to stick their necks out to protect the image of some Americans or Italians! Are we to believe the American dentist was bribing everyone? He wasn’t rich! And sure it was a horrific crime and Pamela was a white girl in China (implying that as a British subject, she was better than ordinary Chinese, making her murder more deplorable), but even so, she wasn’t that important a person – would there really be so many people involved? 

Couple that with the way Werner has been written up to this point as a cranky old man given to delusion – when Pamela died he was in his mid-70s and it’s hinted that dementia was encroaching upon him. Suddenly he’s the heroic father, fighting the Establishment for the truth? And then later when the Japanese invade and send the Westerners to a concentration camp, Werner and Prentice are kept in the same camp, and Werner publicly accuses Prentice of murdering his daughter. And then accuses several other random strangers of the same. This guy is the bedrock upon which French is basing his suppositions?! 

French’s conclusions of Prentice and his gang of rapists committing the deed are Werner’s conclusions. French’s narrative history is compelling and hangs together nicely like a well-plotted story does – but I don’t think a wide range of sources were used to put this picture together. Everything’s just a bit too pat when real life is anything but.

Midnight in Peking is a somewhat entertaining read though, and that’s what I think it was going for more than anything. A true crime mystery story, with the emphasis on story. French’s writing style is a bit awkward at times – he seems to be battling against the restraints of a historian and the flourishes afforded a novelist so that some parts read more smoothly than others. But he does capture a lost era well and the people involved in the case are a compelling bunch to learn about.

If you enjoy true crime, you might like Midnight in Peking but I’d take French’s look at Pamela Werner’s murder with a hefty pinch of salt rather than accept it at face value.

Midnight in Peking

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