Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book Review: "Midnight in Peking"

Paul French's Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin, 2012) is the darkest sort of crime story: the sort that actually happened. French reconstructs the brutal murder of 20-year-old Pamela Werner, whose mutilated body was found beneath Peking's Fox Tower in January 1937. Using newspaper accounts, police records, autopsy reports, and a large investigative file on the case compiled by Pamela's father, French brings this gruesome tale to light.

In "literary non-fiction" style, French recreates Pamela's last days, and provides background on her family, her neighborhood, and the foreign community in Peking during the last 1930s. He reconstructs the police investigation into her death, hampered as it was by "diplomatic" meddling, and, come to find out, severe police corruption and misconduct at several levels. It was left to Pamela's father to follow up leads and try to suss out what actually happened to his daughter, and his version of events has proven credible to French, who uses Werner's reports as the basis for his own narrative of Pamela's death.

A bit hard to read in parts, as French spares none of the gory details - this is decidedly not a book for the squeamish. But it's extremely well written, and a rather amazing story that certainly deserved to be told.

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