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Murder in a time of change ...
on October 4, 2013
Midnight in Peking is not your average supermarket/drugstore true crime novel filled with lurid pictures and speculation. This is true crime as vehicle for social history, much like the books TJ English writes so wonderfully well. In the opening of the book, a young woman's body is discovered - she is brutally, terribly, shockingly dead - the victim of unspeakable crime. She is also British. China is hounded by the Japanese, the world is on the brink of its second World War (or World War I - part II, as I like to describe the inevitable sequel), and the story makes headlines.
Mr. French introduces us to the China of the period, but also offers insight into investigative techniques of the time, the way foreigners in Peking fit into the city (in their own quarters and without), the nature of diplomatic face saving, and a tantalizing glimpse in the Badlands - that sinful place of crime and debauchery. He details the official investigation (where the crime went cold) and the unofficial investigation run by the victim's father (where the crime was solved). Along the way were diplomats, Chinese students, European wastrels, prostitutes, pimps, petty thieves, rooming house denizens, and everything in-between.
Midnight in Peking is a glimpse under the covers of Peking on its way to radical change as the friction between the old and new rub its edges raw. Ostensibly about the murder of Pamela Werner and her father's fight to find justice for her, the book is at its best where it lingers on the fringes of polite society - jazz, brothels, and opium dens, oh my. I would have liked more social history and less true crime, but overall an enjoyable read and winner of the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime and the CWA Non-Fiction Dagger.