Midnight in Peking is the story of the brutal murder of a young British ex-pat woman-girl (she was nineteen at the time of her death) living in Peking – a murder that was never officially solved. The book opens with Pamela’s death and proceeds with the attempts by her father and a joint team of Peking and British authorities to determine whodunit and why. The author, historian Paul French, appears to have left no stone unturned in his research. He follows the winding trail of Pamela’s last day to its horrifying conclusion, discovering along the way that her father, E.T.C. Werner, had done much of his work for him. Unfortunately, this work was largely ignored by Chinese and British authorities – despite Werner’s repeated efforts to bring it to their attention – and Werner would never see justice or resolution for his adoptive daughter’s murder.
The narrative flows smoothly. The writing is crisp and the tale is well-told. Pamela Werner was a more complicated girl than those around her knew; this complexity is teased out and presented via mini-revelations throughout the course of the story. The characters around her – including those ultimately responsible for her death – are vividly painted, warts and all.
This is an officially unsolved murder. There is a surprising amount of evidence that went unheeded, evidence that Paul French turns into a narrative describing the murder, and this is how he closes Pamela’s story. I have to admit that this was the weakest part of the book for me. Not because the writing isn’t good or the story isn’t well presented, but because it felt a little out of place in a non-fiction work of documented history. I don’t fault his assumptions, didn’t find glaring inconsistencies. From the evidentiary set-up, everything probably did go at least largely as he described. But it was an unexpected part of the book for me, nevertheless.
I did not know much about this period of Chinese history, or about Peking in general, before reading. I found French’s book an interesting and insightful snapshot of that world. As with so much of life, the picture he painted was of an intricately interwoven web, layered with public and private personas and a lot of dark, well-kept, secrets. It was a grim reminder that much of the surface elegance of the world is there to hide its seamy underbelly, that people are often not what they seem, and that all-too-often wicked deeds go unpunished. But it was also a reminder that the truth will out, and that the perseverance of one man – be he father or researcher – can bring resolution, even if not justice.
A former corporate attorney and government relations/health policy executive, Jill-Elizabeth walked away from that world (well, skipped actually) and toward a more literary life (equally challenging, but infinitely more enjoyable). If you enjoyed this review, please visit her at Jill-Elizabeth.com, the official home of All Things Jill-Elizabeth – that is, all of the teehees, musings, rants, book reviews, writing exercises, and witticisms of her burgeoning writing career.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.