A footnote in Edgar Snow’s RED STAR OVER CHINA, brought an unsolved murder to author Paul French’s attention. The victim, who became the main subject of MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, was 20 year-old Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of former British Consul, linguist and scholar ETC Werner. Her hideously mutilated body was found near a fifteenth century watchtower, part of Peking’s Tartar Wall, a place the superstitious believed to be inhabited by fox spirits, malevolent ghost who preyed on mortals to “literally love them to death.” The time was 8 January 1937. The Japanese—dwarf bandits, in the Chinese parlance of the time– were about to invade the city. “Ever since the downfall of the Qing Dinasty in 1911, (Peking) had been at the mercy of one marauding warlord after another. Nominally China was ruled by the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, but the government competed for power with the warlords and their private armies…Peking and most of Northern China was a region in flux.”
On the surface, few people seemed better equipped to navigate China’s political turmoil than Pamela, whom Werner and his wife Gladys Nina adopted from the Portuguese Church orphanage. Blonde and gray eyed, Pamela seemed to be home among the foreign residents of the Legation Quarters that encompassed the embassies of Europe, America and Japan. Perfectly fluent in Mandarin, she seemed equally at home at Armour Factory Alley, a hutong—a narrow street–in Peking’s Tartar City, in the shadow of the Fox Tower, just outside the European compound. That is where she lived with her father in a traditional Chinese house. Her mother died when she was five years old and she grew up to be so self-reliant that her father did not hesitate to leave her on her own while he went on archaeological expeditions that took him as far as Mongolia. But in this story, not everything in this story is what it seems.
That winter, Pamela had been on vacation from her boarding school in Tientsin. “She was enjoying herself…running around the city meeting old friends, dating and ice-skating, ans spending time with her father. She rode her bicycle everywhere although the Japanese “…had steadily encircled Peking… and established their base camp a matter of miles from the Forbidden City. Acts of provocation occurred daily…Japanese thugs for hire, known asronin, openly brought opium and heroin into Peking through Manchuria. This was done with Tokyo’s connivance and it was part of the effort to sap Peking’s will. The ronin, their agents and political collaborators , peddled the subsidized narcotics from the Badlands. A cluster of dive bars, brothels and opium dens a stone’s throw from the base of the foreign powers in the Legation Quarter.”
In this setting, which French described so cinematically that one can see the century-old wisteria in the Werners’ courtyard and feel the plush coziness of the velvet curtains in the British Peking Club, worlds collide. East is East and West is West with all tension such arrangements entail. Sometimes the tension erupts into violent disputes. Sometimes, it remains muted, nearly invisible, such as the suffering White Russians fleeing the Soviets and that of Jews fleeing the Nazis, whom the upper crust white folks would rather not acknowledge. For the stateless and the poor posh clubs are universes away. Suicide is common among displaced Europeans and at first, unrecognizable Pamela seems to be just another casualty of geopolitics—except for the nature of her wounds. Those could never have been self-inflicted.
Two detectives set to find out her identity as well as where, why and exactly how her murderer or murderers drained hers blood before dumping her body by the Fox Tower,. Colonel Han Shih-ching of the Peking Police and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, chief of police of the Tientsin British Concession race to find the killer before the Japanese march into the city. . It is an uneasy pairing. Dennis has no real mandate. He is,technically, an observer. For all that, suspects abound—Pamela’s eccentric and occasionally violent father, her Jewish boyfriend, her married Chinese suitor, a Portuguese-Chinese swain oddly named John O’Brien, an Irish no-goodnik. For all anyone knows, some remnant of the Righteous Fists of Harmony, the dreaded Boxers, killed thelaowai—the foreign country person. “Whatever it was,” says Old Chang, the man who the found the body, “It wasn’t good.” The book, however, is excellent. French orchestrates the ungraceful dance of the two detectives in a way that it reflects the unease between people who neither know nor try to understand each other well enough to see beyond the surface. It makes for a great read, filled with twists turns and brilliant insights. I recommend it highly and I think that it will make will make terrific movie.