One-Minute Book Reviews

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

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

June 17, 2009

Joke of the Day — Literary Wit From ‘Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’

Filed under: Humor,Joke of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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A white reporter who watched Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s said that when Paige threw the ball, you saw only something that resembled “a thin line of pipe smoke.” Janet Maslin writes in a review Larry Tye’s new Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 392 pp., $26).

“When asked if he threw that fast consistently, Paige, who would become famed for choice aphorisms, replied: ‘No, sir. I do it all the time.’”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 19, 2009

‘The Story of America in Pictures’ – The Inauguration of FDR

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Alan C. Collins’s long out-of-print The Story of America in Pictures gives a panoramic history of the nation — from the early Indian buffalo hunts through the inauguration of John F. Kennedy — in captioned black-and-white drawings, paintings, engravings, photographs and political cartoons. And it suggests how much we’ll lose if books disappear: You might have to download hundreds of images (or bookmark as many sites) to compile a visual record as rich as using only the Internet

The caption for a photograph of the inauguration of FDR that appears in The Story of America in Pictures says in part:

“The New Deal arrived March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. As with Lincoln, his term began during a national crisis with the added burden that 12,000,000 were unemployed throughout the land. The country was in the midst of a banking panic which the Republicans have since claimed might have been averted had the incoming president not refused to cooperate in efforts to stem it. With every bank in the country closed, general panic was averted by Roosevelt’s use of the radio to carry into America homes his assurance that the banks would reopen shortly, and a new phase of national life would be entered that would lead out of the economic quagmire.”

Since reading this passage, I’ve been asking friends: Did you know that all the banks in the country were closed on the day FDR was inaugurated? I didn’t. And despite the many parallels that columnists have drawn between the present and the 1930s, I haven’t found anyone else who did, either. What does this say about our historical literacy? What else have we forgotten about the Depression?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 7, 2008

Coming Next Week ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:10 am
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1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is sadistic – you “must” read 10 novels by Ian McEwan and none by Barbara Pym – but it’s right about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone, 2008). Meg Jensen writes of this rediscovered gem from the 1930s, a tale of a 40-year-old governess who stumbles into a world of cocktails and evening gowns when an employment agency sends her to the wrong address: “Over the course of a day, in a series of deft interventions, brilliant repartee, and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her newfound friends, but more importantly to herself, as a lifesaver, in more ways than one.” I’ll review the novel next week, and until then you can listen to an audio clip of Frances McDormand reading from the book at www.persephonebooks.co.uk.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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