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Midnight in Peking – Book Review

MidnightinPekingAuthor: Paul French

Publisher: Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY

Copyright: 2011, ISBN: [1431210008]

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 28 September 2013

Summary:  Pamela Werner was killed in January 1937 in Peking. Her killer or killers were never caught. Paul French, relying heavily on detective work done by Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, Palmela’s father, French comes up with the most likely suspect. Good peripheral history.


The fox spirits: The quaint mythology attached to the Fox Tower area in Peking where the mutilated body of twenty-year old Pamela Werner was found on Friday, January 8, 1937.  On page ten of MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, author Paul French says that the investigation into the murder would “consume, and in some ways define, the cold and final days of old Peking.”  It was the time between the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the eventual triumph of Mao and the communists in 1949. During this nearly sixty-year period, the world would experience the most surreal violence since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The unsolved, horrendous murder of a young British girl in Peking did not rise to the level of even a blip on any atrocity meter. Yet, it was a barometer, perhaps a small and far reaching barometer of what was to come after.

Like the content of most books reviewed here chronicling murder in foreign lands, French devotes appropriate space to describing the historical setting in which the crime occurred.

By the time the Japanese invaded China in July 1937, China was being governed by a conglomeration of regional warlords. Japan however was already ensconced  north of China in Manchuria.  French notes that in January 1937, Peking was simply awaiting the arrival of the Japanese. This is the backdrop for the murder of Pamela Warner—a foreigner in a foreign land. But she was not the only foreigner.

Warner’s father, Edward Chalmers Werner (ETC  Werner) was a former British consul in China who had choose to live in Peking after being nudged out of his job with the British foreign service. He had been in China since 1880 and was an occasional lecturer at Peking University. In 1911, at age 47, he married twenty-nine year old Gladys Nina Ravenshaw in Hong Kong.  The couple adopted Pamela in 1919 from a Catholic-run orphanage. The Werners knew nothing about Pamela’s parents or even her exact age when she was adopted.  Somehow the date of 7 February 1917 was given as her birthdate on her passport. Gladys Werner died three years after Pamela was adopted, leaving the child to be reared by ETC Werner and his household staff.

French sprinkles this historical information about the Werner family into the larger narrative describing the historical setting of the times. It is rather annoying but it is in keeping with the theme of the book.  If the Legation Quarter where “Peking’s foreigners clustered” was the center for foreigners in Peking—two to three thousand according to Fench—it was an adjunct for ETC Werner and his daughter. They lived outside the Legation Quarter. Farther beyond the Quarter the environs take on the feel of concentric circles of increasing foreignness including ghosts of Fox Spirits. The place where Pamela’s body was found was in one of those circles of foreignness. In the end of course we realize that it was not the foreignness of place or even time that was responsible for her death.

French, retracing the investigative steps taken by ECT Werner, cobbles together a fairly strong case as to who killed Pamela Werner. The circumstances surrounding her death, how she ended up in the place where her murders were, is believable and plausible. She was a strong-willed, independent young woman. Still, we come away from MIDNIGHT IN PEKING with a feeling that Pamela Werner was a greater mystery than her murder. After going through a list of the usual suspects—the father, ECT Werner himself, a couple of boyfriends, one of her instructors at the Tientsin Grammar boarding school she was sent too after her father decided he could not properly handle her—French gives us only a hint as to why Pamela ended up being even a potential murder victim. In January 1937, she had come home to Peking and was preparing to go to England. Two years earlier she had become a very rich young woman, inheriting money from her mother. Did she place herself in a precarious position in a final fling, knowing she would leave Peking for good never to return? It is just one of the questions the book leaves us with.

As for the historical ambiance painted by MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, it is depressingly meticulous. The denizens, both foreigners and Chinese, were in waiting for the arrival of the Japanese army. A twilight zone between what had been and what was to be. Pamela Werner’s death was not the only murder to occur in the city, perhaps not even the most significant. But it was a murder that signified the times.

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING is highly recommended reading.


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