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Showing 1-10 of 286 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 372 reviews
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.
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on April 3, 2014
If you look at this book as a description of life in and around Peking's expatriate community during the onset of Japan's rapacious pre-World War II conquest of China -- it's a very good book. However, if you're looking for a riveting murder mystery, you could do better. The book tells the true story of the gruesome murder of the daughter of a distinguished British former diplomat and how the father conducted an almost-unbelieveable quest to find the killer. Whether he found the killer -- the book pretty much leaves that up to you to decide. The author has his own opinion and makes a big foray into assumption, perhaps bordering on fiction, to share that opinion with the reader. If the author is correct, the investigation into the murder of Pamela Werner was the victim of a massive British diplomatic coverup at a time when the world was falling apart and other priorities intruded. Although the murder story was far from riveting, it was interesting and in the telling, it put the reader smack dab into the heart of a China that we will never see again.
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on February 3, 2017
At first I thought the book went into great detail about things that were irrelevant but upon finishing the book I have a very vivid picture of the life of Peking and the Werners. I was able to gain an emotional connection to the characters through the words of Paul French. For awhile it felt like Mr Werner wrote the book. I really enjoyed this read.
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on July 24, 2017
It was interesting hearing the official and unofficial investigations into this woman's murder and seeing all the bs cover-ups by the politicians. I hope the murderer's name is disgraced in history
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on April 4, 2013
My only (small) gripe is that I just can't believe so much detail is available about these events. On the one hand, the investigation was primitive and handled poorly. But on the other, if someone was wearing a tie with a loose thread, this was noted somewhere. It's interesting of course, but you could research a crime from last month and not get all this minutiae. A little hard to believe. Do we really know if some guy had one brandy or two on a certain night, close to a century ago? As fiction, it's perfect. As non-fiction it's well reasoned but doesn't quite ring true.
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on August 18, 2017
Gripping crime novel. All the more interesting because it was a real story, contains photos of the real characters and because it has fascinating descriptions of Peking in the 1930's. Very well written.
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on February 4, 2013
Midnight in Peking is the true story of the vicious killing of a British diplomat's daughter, nineteen year old Pamela Werner. Her brutalized body was found along the old Ming wall at the foot of the Fox Tower in what was then called Peking. It was January 1937. The young woman's corpse was desiccated and half frozen, her tartan school girl skirt torn, her heart missing. The sordid tale of Pamela's life and death enthralled Peking's expat community with rumors of fox spirits and mistaken identity and in the end it exposed corruption and negligence at the highest orders of two governments.

From its outset, Midnight in Peking is necessarily gory, but what makes this book worthwhile is how it blends criminal investigation with a alluring cast of characters and a forgotten city. At its core, this is a book about a place that has all but evaporated. January 1937 was the beginning of the last year of a Peking the world would never see again. It was a city in which white expats and ordinary Chinese people coexisted in a tense rat's nest of political intrigue, suspicion and fear. At the time of Pamela's murder, Peking was a last bastion for lost souls. It was populated in large part by White Russians, exiles, Jewish refugees and stateless people who had long ago shed their skins, their identities and their claim to any kind of legitimate legal life. Chinese warlords imported American and Canadian body guards who wanted to forget their often criminal pasts and biracial hermaphrodites ran cabarets with élan, sliding effortlessly between genders and races while Russian whores succumbed to heroin addictions in the back rooms of brothels. In 1937 Peking expats were living in the last days of city that was quickly slipping away. Most of them just didn't know it yet.

Right in the thick of it, the mutilated body of a young English woman becomes a symbol of all the depravity and human debris contained within the city walls. Pamela is the unlikely personification of Peking's perverse underbelly and a portent of what was already looming in the hills above the city.

Pamela Werner's story is a scintillating blend of slaughter, deception and history. Pamela, a grey eyed, fair haired girl, seems almost banal at first, but she is actually the strange embodiment of Peking's fraught expat population. She began her life as an orphan, one of the many unwanted offspring of the White Russian residents of the city who often languished in dense poverty. She was adopted by a British diplomat, the preeminent Sinologist and all around unlikable eccentric, E.T.C. Werner. Pamela was fluent in Chinese and lived quite happily in the bifurcated world of Peking. There was no one quite like her in her circles and the true reality of her existence and experience uncoils itself throughout the course of the book. In the end, Pamela's story exposes the worst side of a beguiling city as well as the darkest heart of human nature.

Paul French is a accessible, precise writer. He tells the story as a lost history and vividly resurrects obscure characters with complete personalities. The author creates a portrait of Peking that is as bewitching as it is bizarre and in doing so captures a fascinating moment in the city's life when it teetered on the brink of war.

A year after Pamela's murder the Japanese invaded Peking from the hills that surrounded it, sundered and victimized the city, massacred an untold number of Chinese and interred the remaining expats (including Pamela's father). The grey eyed girl who was left butchered in a ditch was all but forgotten. If it wasn't for her strange father, who exhausted his personal fortune by financing a private investigation, Pamela and her tragic tale would have been entirely lost. But E.T.C. Werner was relentless and he left behind his extensive notes, which, in the deft hands of Paul French, reveal not only the identity of Pamela's killer but also the perverse underbelly of long lost Peking.

Pamela Werner is buried somewhere under the second ring road in a city that now bares almost no resemblance to the place she knew and loved. As Beijing continues to grow and shape shift I found it endlessly interesting to learn about how this place was once, not so long ago, when war waited in the hillsides and Fox spirits haunted the old Ming wall in a prodigal city.

(review originally published on OceanPerson.com)
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on July 16, 2013
For me the fascination of this book was the setting. The place and the time. Poor Pamela died a gruesome death, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time mixing, it seems, with the wrong people. But these were the people of the expatriot community in Peking, a mixed bunch admittedly , but not , one might think given to murdering innocent young girls for pleasure. The turmoil of the times meant that the investigation was a sorry affair and no one was ever convicted. Her aged adoptive father, a scholar and Sinologist of many decades spent years trying to discover the murderer, maybe he did. The warlords in the north, the Japanese army advancing from the south and the air of uncertainty and waivering law enforcement unleashed in someone a sense that wickedness would go undetected and unpunished...it was all they needed, and then Pamela walked in. An excellent read and an insight into the thin veneer of civilization. Definitely read this book.
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on July 3, 2013
I loved the background provided. Understanding the politics of China and the British legation were valuable insight as to why this brutal murder was never solved. If you like history of the last century and grisly stories this is for you. Paul French does relate the details in a more clinical way that makes the reading more palatable. Any book that causes me to research further into a culture gets my vote.
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on September 19, 2012
Not being a reader of fiction I decided not to buy this book even though I am interested in 'colonial' British ex-pat life in China and had heard of the unsolved Pamela Werner murder in pre-war Peking. Newspaper reviews of the book suggested to me that it was heavily fictionalised, even if well written. Publisher's hype (supported by Paul French's website) suggested that he had brilliantly solved the 75 year old murder -- another firm turn-off for me.

However, like-minded friends who had read the paper edition strongly recommended it, if only because E T C Werner (Pamela's father) and the supposed murderer ended up together in the Japanese internment camp at Weishien in which I was also interned as a boy. So I bought the Kindle edition, which I was disappointed to find had none of the photographs of the original. It was immediately clear that the author had unearthed an amazing amount of detailed facts about the murder and its joint investigation by Chinese and British police. But it turned out that much of this had come from highly critical written reports of the police investigation by E T C Werner (a former barrister and British Consul), together with a series of reports of his own investigations, which he formally lodged with the British colonial office with repeated pleas to have the case re-opened.

OK, that out of the way: the book is so well structured and written that it was 'a page turner' for me: a dramatic story, a fascinating cross-section of British Legation life not laid bare elsewhere to my knowledge, and a realistic snapshot of Old Peking and its tensions -- not least of which was the intrusion of the Japanese at that time. Although I thought that significant unwarranted extrapolations from the factual material were made to exaggerate scandal and dramatic tension, they were mercifully not such as to turn the book into fiction. Examples are the supposed rape of Pamela by the headmaster of her boarding school, along with her supposed pregnancy, and the ex-pat 'hunting club' that was supposed to be a front for the systematic gang-raping of a series of young white women over some years. Strangely, the activities of the club -- which supposedly led on to murder in Pamela's case -- were never investigated or uncovered.

I can recommend the book to anyone interested in 'colonial' China.
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