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Friday
Apr272012

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Published by Penguin on April 24, 2012

The mutilated corpse of a foreigner found at the base of Fox Tower on January 8, 1937 posed a special problem for Peking police. The victim was a free-spirited young woman named Pamela Werner. When Pamela wasn't attending school in Tientsin, she lived in Peking with her adoptive father, Edward Werner, a scholar and former British consul. She had been beaten to death and then dumped at Fox Tower. Multiple wounds were inflicted post-mortem in an apparent attempt to dismember the body. Sections of her skin and some of her organs had been removed.

The task of investigating the crime fell to Han Shih-ching, with the assistance of Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, who headed the police in the British Concession in Tientsin. Dennis delved into Edward Werner's troubled past, learning of the problems he caused in his various diplomatic postings before he got sacked, a history suggestive of mental instability. Gossip -- the favorite sport of the expat community -- suggested that death and tragedy were Werner's constant companions, including the suspicious death of his wife.

A little more than a third of the narrative has passed by before a promising suspect emerges, but if solving the crime were that easy there would be no story to tell -- at least not a story filled with drama and intrigue. Fortunately for the reader (less so for Han and Dennis), the British government increased its efforts to impede Dennis' investigation, suggesting that a cover-up, if not a full-blown conspiracy, was afoot. Brits Behaving Badly becomes a subtext, as does the concept of "saving face," a characteristic often associated with Asians but quite applicable to the British living and working in China. Racial bigotry also played a role in the British government's insistence that the investigation should focus on Chinese rather than foreign residents.

The investigation took place as Peking prepared for invasion by the Japanese. As in any complex investigation, Dennis and Han pursued a number of false leads. The investigation brought them into contact with foreign residents of Peking who indulged in (to put it delicately) unusual recreational activities, suspicious but not necessarily related to Pamela's murder.

A little more than halfway through the narrative, Dennis finally receives information that provides a credible solution to the mystery while pointing to a suspect who is beyond the law's reach. At that point, however, Peking is virtually under siege by the Japanese and Pamela's disappearance is all but forgotten. Dennis is recalled to Tientsin, the official investigation is closed, and it falls to Werner to use his own resources to discover the truth about his daughter's death. He pursues that goal relentlessly over the course of several years.

Midnight in Peking reads like a well-paced murder mystery, but it is ultimately a tale of corruption, not just within the Peking police but, more startlingly, within the British government, whose officials valued the façade of British civility more than the truth. The narrative proceeds at a steady pace and is enlivened by insightful examinations of the principle players. Paul French provides the reader with enough background facts to add flavor but not so many as to bog down the narrative in needless detail. The text is well-documented in a series of endnotes. It seems likely that, for the sake of good story telling, French re-creates some scenes and conversations in greater detail than the historical record allows, but the book suggests no reason to believe that he has plays fast and loose with historical fact. His attempt to tie the "fox spirit" into the story -- representing a woman who beguiles and betrays -- is colorful but a bit weak. Still, Midnight in Peking is a fascinating look at a forgotten moment in a distant land, an unsolved murder that "slipped from history" despite the compelling evidence of guilt that Werner finally assembled, and that French faithfully reproduces.

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