One-Minute Book Reviews

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

3 Comments »

  1. I do concur with your view that this book cannot be classified as non-fiction. I am related to one of the main characters and frankly the author … promote[s] his agenda of the “cover-up by pompous people in authority” I am wondering how it is possible that throughout the book he attributes thoughts and emotions to most of the characters, with no sources. The age of the victim changes throughout the story. It is also miraculous that Werner was able to get an “eye witness” report from an illiterate, drug addicted rickshaw driver two years after the event- and that the author is content to accept that report. Thank you for your refreshingly objective review.

    Comment by Lindsay Ganju — October 4, 2012 @ 9:02 am | Reply

    • Just to clarify: I questioned whether this book is nonfiction in the usual sense (rather than saying it can’t be classified as such). A fuller explanation of the source notes might persuade me that it deserves its billing as “history” on the copyright page, But, among other problems with the book, the end notes are so inadequate as to make it difficult to accept that categorization.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 5, 2012 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Janice
    I love your reviews: the title on this one was certainly eye-catching! I thought you would be interested in this site: http://www.pamelawernermurderpeking.com

    In particular, check out the “Sources”, “Sources in detail”, “Case against Prentice” pages.
    regards
    Lucy Tucker

    Comment by Werner Compilers — October 11, 2013 @ 3:19 pm | Reply


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