The city of Peking, now known as Beijing, awakes on a cold January morning in 1937, to discover a young English woman, the daughter of a retired diplomat, has been brutally murdered.
So begins Midnight in Peking by British author Paul French. The book recently was published in the United States, after becoming a number-one bestseller in Asia.
French, who has lived in China for two decades, takes the reader along as he re-investigates a cold case murder that actually happened. He shows the genteel as well as the seedy side of a city where tensions are heightened by the nervous anticipation of a Japanese invasion.
“The thing about Peking in 1937, is that it was a completely surrounded city,” says French. “The Japanese…were only eight miles [12.8 kilometers] away from the city center at the Marco Polo Bridge. It was no longer a question of if Japan was going to invade China, it was when.”
The Murder Case
An elderly Chinese man found the victim’s badly mutilated body at the bottom of a 15th century watchtower. The victim was 19 year-old Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of retired British diplomat E.T.C. Werner, who had remained in China to pursue his study of the country’s history and culture.
“The body had been pretty horrifically mutilated and dumped at the foot of this building called the Fox Tower, which was a very desolate and isolated place because there was a lot of superstition around the tower, that it was haunted by fox spirits so people kept away from it,” says French.
According to ancient Chinese legend, fox spirits disguised as beautiful young women prey on or try to possess humans.
The killing prompted a joint investigation by Peking Detective Colonel Han Shih-ching and British Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, who was based in Tientsin. Han was considered the best detective in the country, who had trained in China and Japan and spoke English, and Dennis had trained at Scotland Yard.
“As far as I know, this is the only time in Chinese history that a Chinese and a British detective ever worked together to try and solve a crime,” says French.
Author French has provided some investigative insight himself, reconstructing the crime, uncovering compelling evidence and deftly depicting the characters involved. For example, he learned the investigation found that Pamela Werner had two sides to her character. School photographs show a rather plain girl in a uniform, but Colonel Han found a studio portrait which revealed a lovely young woman in an elegant dress.
“These photos were taken within months, if not weeks, of each other, and so immediately, they had these two Pamelas,” says French. “And reconciling these two Pamelas was a major part of the job for the police.”
Who would so brutally murder a British schoolgirl preoccupied with boys, ice skating and preparing for university?
The investigation focused on the Legation Quarter, the home to most of Peking’s foreign professionals, including diplomats, businessmen, scholars and journalists. But nearby was the area known as the Badlands, occupied by desperately poor white Russians and people perceived as "ne’er do wells," often working in prostitution and drug dealing.
“Those two communities would like to think they were very separate,” says French. “What Pamela’s murder instantly showed was that these two worlds overlapped in many more ways than people would be comfortable with.”
The case generated enormous press coverage, both inside and outside of China. But due to meddling by the British Embassy and the onset of the Japanese occupation, the investigation faded away.
The Murder Solved?
French believes he has pinpointed the actual reasons for the killing of Pamela Werner, based on a private investigation carried out by her father which is now contained in Britain’s National Archives.
Midnight in Peking will be televised by the British production company Kudos Television. French hopes the series will be co-produced with Chinese television, and shot on many of the locations portrayed in the book.
“We haven’t really had a good ‘foreigners in China’ drama for quite a long time, and there’s so much interest around the world in China among people that it could be great fun to do,” he says.