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Book Review: Midnight in Peking

Updated: May 23, 2021

When British student Pamela Werner was found mutilated on a freezing cold Peking morning in 1937 so began a mystery that 80 years later remains unsolved, at least officially. Author Paul French does however offer a highly plausible hypothesis regarding what actually occurred on that fateful long ago night.

French paints a vivid picture of Peking's notorious Badlands area - a place of opium, gangsters and brothels, a place by the sounds of it far wilder than anything the west could possibly offer. Life is very cheap in Badlands. Attracting thieves and vagabonds of every description, white Russians, Korean madams and dissolute Europeans, this could be Dante's Inferno. As a backdrop it doesn't get much more exotic than this.

Meanwhile, the eccentric and learned E T C Werner lives close by with this 20-year old adopted daughter Pamela. Her brutal murder shatters the septuagenarian's world. Once the official police enquiry has led to a dead end, this remarkable man decides to carry out his own investigation into his only child's murder. A tale of frustration and fortitude unfolds.

Witnessing how the British establishment attempt to block this grieving and elderly father's efforts to obtain justice certainly has the power to make the blood boil, even now. Indeed, it is shocking to realise the sheer amount of evidence Mr Werner manages to uncover that eluded the police, most of it basic detection work.

Fearing for its reputation, the British Consul apparently attempted to stymie Werner at every opportunity despite the proliferation of fresh evidence produced by this frail but determined father, once a high ranking British diplomat himself. It really is impossible not to feel rising anger when reading Mr French's account of this tragedy.

When one considers the fate that befell this young girl, anger only increases. Through the author's diligent research which included stumbling serendipitously upon E T C Werner's notes of his own enquiries - sent to the F O but filed quietly away far from prying eyes - a chilling scenario emerges.

It appears that the young woman fell victim to a gang of louche, thoroughly depraved ex-pats lead by an American dentist and who prowled the streets of Peking looking for victims. According to French, accepting an invitation to a 'party' ended up at a brothel where the gang attempted to rape the young woman. A cover up then ensued.

For this group of 'respectable' men - a doctor, a dentist - had their reputations to preserve. Nobody it seemed wanted to dig too deep. Let sleeping dogs lie. But not E T C Werner who was determined to seek justice for his only child. Werner's determination certainly shines through these pages and the casual reader can only admire the strength of character described by French.

Thus a detective story emerges that is always very murky and in its presentation of colonial Peking under imminent threat of invasion, always tense and tort. The pages simply fly by. How the reader wants the old man to succeed - to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Paul French's meticulously researched book presents a vivid account of a city on tenterhooks, a Peking waiting for the imminent Japanese invasion also recounted by J G Ballard in his biographical 'Empires of the Sun.' 'Midnight in Peking' is a fascinating read -a thriller, a story of obstruction and ineptitude but overall a story of great courage and tenacity by a bereaved father on a quest for justice.

The only question remains: why has this not been made into a film? With its exotic setting bursting to the seam with shady characters, its seedy drinking dens and seedier brothels, 'Midnight in Peking' is crying out for transfer to the big screen.